As a film Director, if your financial backer writes off almost the entire $250 Million production costs as your film opens, you know that you are in big trouble.
Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame, in his first “live” action film, suffered this ignominious fate as his awkwardly titled summer blockbuster “John Carter” opened at theatre’s. Like “Waterworld”, this film has proved a suitable whipping boy for critics and the public alike, “Biggest Bomb ever” is perhaps one of the kindest taglines.
So after all the dust has settled is the film any good?
Like so many Box Office turkeys, not as bad as you might have been led to believe but…
Following a prologue which confuses rather than excites, we arrive upon John Carter in Virginia 1868 (Taylor Kitsch). Carter is a decorated retired confederate soldier looking for gold, although a Cavalry captain is keen to enlist him, to go kill some Apaches.
Finally hiding in a cave after many unsuccessful attempts at escape, he encounters a strange be-robed character clutching a medallion, who then promptly attacks him. Quicker than you can repeat a meaningless incantation, he finds himself teleported somewhere strange, very strange indeed.
Within a few minutes, Carter is bounding around his new environment like a teenager with springs on his feet and Red Bull in his belly. The sequence is well done but does make the character look rather silly. Stumbling on some hatching alien eggs, as you do, Carter meets Tars Tarkas a green alien from the Thark tribe. Eventually they decide to adopt him as a pseudo baby, rather than BBQ the new find.
Carter eventually discovers he is now on Mars, amidst a civil war between two warring humanoid factions. Luckily, they have audience friendly colour coded Red and Blue uniforms. He also gains a large alien dog like CGI creature, who follows him everywhere at a scamper, like a large slavering puppy dog.
There is a love interest in the shapely form of Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), a bargaining chip that refuses to be used as a pawn in the matchmaking between the two powers. A omnipotent group called the Thern, headed by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), appear to pull all the levers in this Universe, with all the combatants seemingly mere play things for their amusement.
Confused, well you should be. The plot is cheesy, albeit based on original stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars” from 1917.
Kitsch and Collins do well in the circumstances, in fact most of the human cast do not disgrace themselves. The effects are state of the art and it is clear where at least part of the budget has been spent. The aliens among others, are voiced by Willem Defoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Hayden Church, their voice acting as you would expect, is good.
So despite all of the positives, the film refuses to coalesce into a satisfying whole. Like building a Mini with parts from a Rolls Royce, there is quality but it still doesn’t look and feel quite right. You watch certain scenes just contemplating, how did they get this far into the production without somebody asking, “is this really working?”.
The story commences like “Cowboys and Aliens” in the Wild West. The Sci-Fi section, which comprises the main part of the film, is a curious amalgam of all the worst CGI characters from New Star Wars, mashed together with the outtakes from Avatar. Clearly this has been done before and better, despite the origin story pre-dating the other referenced films.
The film is destined to become a study in a Film history course, which is an unfair fate. Perhaps housed at Disney and without the famous Pixar brain trust, the Director’s eye was taken off the ball, allowing the story to no longer be treated as King.
A boys own romp with an uneasy combination of the Wild West and Sci-Fi. The film stumbles fatally on occasions, exposing flaws that even better scenes cannot hide.
Not entirely without merit but overall a disappointment. Watching forty minutes each of Avatar, Star Wars and Cowboys and Aliens, might be a better choice.