John Carter is fun. Let's start with that, because that's the place where a critical review of an aspiring blockbuster action movie should start.
It was fun to get to know John Carter, the titular character played by Taylor Kitsch. It was fun to follow him from a cave in Arizona to Mars, or as the diverse locals there call it, Barsoom. I liked watching him discover that the laws of gravity aren't quite as stringent on Barsoom as they are on Earth, and enjoyed things even more when he leaped and bounded his way into a chance meeting with Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Tharks, a green, beanpolish race of Martians with four arms. I was intrigued when he, and the Tharks by extension, became entangled in the endless civil war between two Martian cities, Helium and Zodanga. I was pleased to see James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds, who played Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, respectively on the HBO series Rome, alongside each other again in Helium. I was impressed by Mark Strong, who plays the main villain, Matai Shang of the Holy Therns, and is quickly turning into one of the best baddies in Hollywood. And I was quite fond of Woola, Carter's dog-like companion and protector.
John Carter looked fantastic. The action sequences were outstanding, most notably when Carter takes on a legion of Tharks and emerges from the battle looking like Teen Heartthrob Smurf (Tharks bleed blue). The movie held my attention for the full 132 minutes. It mixed in surprising bits of humor. Most importantly, when the credits rolled I wanted to see more.
For some reason, I've been told for the last week-plus that I should ignore all of that stuff -- the good stuff -- and focus almost exclusively on the fact that John Carter cost Disney a rumored $250 million to make and that the marketing campaign for it was a disaster as if I'm a staff writer for Variety or the suit who greenlit this project or on the Board of Trustees at Disney.
Well, I'm not any of the three. Neither are most of the people who shelled out a collective $30.6 million to see it during its opening weekend. And so let's just get this out of the way right at the top -- John Carter is a bit of a litmus test. If you care about the budget and you're a critic (not an industry writer/analyst/insider), you're coming at things from an inside-baseball perspective that puts you out of touch with the average moviegoer by default. Now, if you'll allow to step down from the soapbox we can continue.
John Carter is not perfect, far from it in fact. I was disappointed by Dominic West's turn as secondary villain Sab Than, the Prince of Zodanga. The overall experience was on the clumsy side, insomuch as it is difficult to keep pace with the Tharks and and Therns and Tars Tarkases prowling about the Martian landscape at first. We are getting the origin story inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs' long forgotten source material, A Princess of Mars, which was originally published in 1912. Most of the origin stories we see at the movie theater nowadays are at least somewhat familiar to us -- no one has to explain Bruce Wayne's personal history in great depth every time Batman gets rebooted -- but director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, best known for WALL-E and Finding Nemo, didn't have that luxury in this case. That's not to let him off the hook, but it certainly does make the momentary confusion more understandable and more tolerable.
Stanton's vision also might seem a bit derivative if you don't go in with the knowledge that Burroughs' tale is a century old. Even if you do account for that beforehand you have to keep reminding yourself how old (and truly original) it is. Science fiction fans will see a shade of Tatooine here and a glimpse of Na'vi culture there almost throughout the film. It's hard to shake the feeling that all of this has been done and done better before, only that's an inside out perspective. Burroughs' stories were the inspiration for Star Wars and Avatar, not the other way around. (Maybe it's just my inner historian, but I actually liked seeing where those familiar concepts came from.)
Anyway, about the biggest valid criticism that you can level at John Carter -- and this is where you do have to mention the budget -- is that it comes off as too franchise-oriented. That feeling I had of wanting to see more, it's both a positive and a negative. An origin story these days implies that several sequels are in the offing, that there will be chance upon chance to visit again with Woola, to see what awaits Carter in his return to the Red Planet. Considering the bottom line, though, that hardly seems like a sure thing, and so the incompleteness of the origin story is gnawing at me more than it would otherwise. It feels like a little bit of hubris from a very successful director and a nearly bulletproof brand.
If this is it for John Carter, and I'm really hoping it isn't, we can lament the lousy marketing and the colossal budget and that slightly unfulfilled feeling. But we can also say worse things about a movie than I wish there was just a little bit more of it. You know, like, shut this thing off immediately.