disaster. Ishtar in space. Red Ink Planet . . .
Even before John Carter sank without a
trace at the box office three months ago, the pundits weighed in on its
ultimate fate. They branded it a turkey of epic proportions, a financial
disaster of the sort that used to kill entire studios. A
prominent-yet-lackluster ad campaign didn’t help matters and the film’s
speed-of-light release on Blu-ray suggests an embarrassment that Disney
would like to forget as quickly as possible.
But a funny thing happened on the way to cinematic ignominy. The film itself
turned out to be much better than early word suggested. Critical reaction
was heavily mixed, but a discernible group of voices leapt enthusiastically
to John Carter’s
defense. Many (though not all) of those voices loved the original John
Carter stories long before they turned into a movie, and most of them
understood the character’s importance to modern science fiction. Edgar Rice
Burroughs created John Carter a century ago, and his writing inspired
everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to
prominent astronomers like Carl Sagan.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this movie has a lot of life
left in it, if not as the blockbuster its creators imagined then as a cult
film of the first order. The Blu-ray release marks the first step in that
transition, giving people another chance to watch it and realize that it may
be a great deal better than they were led to believe.
Admittedly, the film takes its time to get going. We start with an awkward
introduction to the world of Mars – rendered a desert by millennia of war,
but still full of savage, violent and fascinating life – followed by an
obtuse framing device covering Carter’s (Taylor Kitsch) early life in
post-Civil War America. It’s a heavy lodestone to bear and you may find your
patience tested getting through it. (A deleted sequence on the Blu-ray hints
at a much more elegant opening abandoned for reasons we can’t quite fathom.)
Then Carter reaches the Red Planet, and suddenly the movie comes alive. A
sinister conspiracy aims to destroy the free city of Helium there, paving
the way for the despotic rule of Sab Than (Dominic West). It’s up to Carter
to stop them, aided by his enhanced strength and speed courtesy of the
planet’s lower gravity.
Director Andrew Stanton buckles the swashes tightly with all manner of alien
creatures, daring rescues and a beautiful princess (Lynn Collins) who proves
every bit the hero’s equal. It all stays true to the character’s pulpy
origins, while infusing the action with a Boys’ Own energy unseen since the
heyday of Lucas and Spielberg. The undeniable energy with which John Carter
unfolds speaks to marvelous nights reading paperbacks under the covers,
traveling through a landscape as rich as Oz or Lucas’s
John Carter does
itself a big favor by taking it all very seriously: fun, to be sure, but
refusing to indulge in too-hip winks or in-jokes. That investment helps us
get into the proper mindset, then revel along with the cast at the popcorn
fun on display.
Others have noted that Disney short-changed the film by refusing to hype its
influential status further. Had audiences understood what they were
watching, they might have shown up in greater numbers. Against the current
crop of summer blockbusters, it more than holds its own, and while it serves
as nothing more than straight entertainment, its good qualities hold up over
multiple viewings. John Carter may not have been a hit, but like its hero,
its story is far from written. If you haven’t seen it yet, give it another
shot. You may be surprised at how much fun it can be.
THE DISC: Disney does right by the film’s gorgeous vistas and sound
palette, providing the only reason you really need to pick it up. The
supporting features are rather anemic: a brief documentary on Burroughs, a
behind-the-scenes “day on the set” feature, trailers and audio commentary
along with the now-standard DVD copy. Considering the poor box office
showing, it’s not surprising that they would keep the extra features to a
minimum, but the film itself remains the primary draw.
WORTH IT? Unquestionably, especially if you’ve not yet seen it. This
film definitely merits a viewing.
John Carter’s self-seriousness and maligned reputation shouldn’t get in
the way of its innate appeal. Anyone in the mood for a big-budget adventure
will find something to appreciate here.
- Rob Vaux