Disney had a problem with the film John Carter From Mars. They had just spent an unholy $350,000,000 on a sci-fi pet project by Andrew Stanton that had zero bankable stars and was not rating highly with test audiences.
Having just seen the back of 2011 which saw them lose $136 million on the dire Mars Needs Moms (one of the biggest box office flops of all time), the last thing they wanted was to send out another film with ‘Mars’ in the title. It was a word that didn’t poll well with young audiences. But what to call it? The original Edgar Rice Burrows novel was titled The Princess of Mars but Disney’s marketing team feared that using the name ‘Princess’ would put off teenage boys from watching it. They settled on John Carter, dropping the ‘of Mars.’ The effect it had was seemingly to disinterest both boys and girls. John Carter did a lacklustre $70 million at the U.S box office and now needs to perform minor miracles in the international market or it may surpass Mars Needs Moms as the new reigning King of Box Office Losses.
Not surprisingly, it’s faltering performance at the box office caused heads to roll. Disney Studio exec Rich Ross has since resigned and who knows how many more safe projects Disney will need to dig its way back to profitability. I suspect we’ll get Pirates of the Carribean 7: Mission To Moscow before we see anything like this again.
So…is John Carter actually any good? It got middling reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics have it at 52% fresh (a ‘rotten’ rating). On IMDB, cinema audiences have rated it 7.0. Having finally had a chance to watch it, I think everyone has it about right. It is a good film. Not great.
The film opens with a soaring view of the Red Planet’s dessert surface. Some flying CGI aircrafts swoop into view. Immediately, I’m getting flashes of Star Wars I: The Phanton Menace. It’s not a good start.
John Carter then steps back for a moment to civil war era America and introduces us to the eponymous Mr Carter, a retired Confederate Army captain who now spends his days searching for gold. After an altercation with some Apache Indians and some local law enforcement, Carter kills an alien in a cave and magically teleports to Mars or Basoom, as its known by the alien life forms that live there.
On Mars, Carter discovers that his body is able to jump incredible distances and he can perform great feats of strength. He gets embroiled in a civil war on the planet’s surface between the Tharks, the Heliums and the Zodangas. There’s a love interest, Princess Dejah, played by the stunning but unexcitingly named Lynn Collins. There’s a villain who is played by Detective McNulty from The Wire. And there’s a slobbery alien dog thing. Hijinx ensues.
What follows over the next 100 minutes is a good old fashioned pulp sci-fi story. People fall in love, cities go to war and eventually John Carter unites some aliens and saves the day.
It might sound like I’m selling the story short but I think its simplicity is part of its appeal. The film can be taken almost entirely on face value. It has a similar quality about it to Star Wars IV: A New Hope, The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal. This is a film about the Hero’s Journey as a unlikely outcast transforms into a great leader. It is also deeply nerdy. They don’t hold back on alien races having long, unprounouncable names. I couldn’t remember the name of half the characters immediately after the film. They revel in the silliness of an alien planet where some people use laser guns and others use swords because even though it doesn’t make much sense, it looks cool. But you know what? It’s actually makes for a pretty fun movie. It’s light hearted, has plenty of enjoyable action and has an earnest good natured quality about it that makes it clear this was a labour of love for director Andrew Stanton.
John Carter is the whacky B-movie cousin to Avatar. Well, it should be. Only it isn’t because unbelievably, someone somewhere screwed up big time and this thing cost more than Avatar to produce and market. How in the world did that happen?
To be honest, no film is worth this amount of money. Not today. Not when the average household income in America is less than $50,000, there are millions living below the poverty line and the country is economically in tatters. Not when your studio is running ads about how internet movie piracy might bankrupt Hollywood. Unless John Carter solved world hunger through the proxy of a storyline that was equal in quality to Godfather II meets Gone With the Wind meets Citizen Kane, this was always going to be an impossible production cost for a film about goddamn zadongas to overcome.
It’s a shame that the negative box office performance has overshadowed what is otherwise a fun and entertaining film but at $350 million, how can it not? My biggest concern is that this film, coupled with Mars Needs Moms, will cause Disney to retreat into its shell and bankroll only safe, boring productions. If the out of control spending for John Carter means we get less films like Wall E and Up, and more sequels for Cars and Pirates of the Carribean, then thats a real shame.