I feel kinda crummy. When this film came out, I was rooting for it to fail. And when it did fail, (some reports stating that its failure caused a work stoppage at Disney) I was gloating and snickering about it. Now, I’m not one of these die-hard Edgar Rice-Burrows fans who was crying “sacrilege!” any deviation from the books, and in fact, I’d only read one Burrows “Mars” book, “The Mastermind of Mars”, back in high school. (totally forgot what happened). But “John Carter of Mars” is like Dick Tracy or Doc Savage. He’s in my subconsciousness. As long as I can remember, I’ve been staring at John Carter covers in book stores or Frank Frazetta collections. I may not know a lot about the details of the stories, but he’s one of the grand old salts of science fiction, and based on the book covers alone, I wanted to see his adventures on the big screen.
Alas! I fell for the classic trap of listening to naysayers and avoiding the film in the theaters. I denied myself the opportunity to see John Carter on the big screen and instead saw it on a portable DVD player while doing the dishes.
And I really enjoyed every minute of it. It was a terrific, well-crafted, old-fashioned adventure. A real swashbuckler. With HEART. Great, seamless effects and a solid, if pulpy (and at this point, used up and dry storyline– but that’s not really the books’ or film’s fault that everyone’s been ripping off Burrows’ ideas since the 30’s.) And at the very least, at its core was the notion that we’re being controlled by the Power Masters of the Universe. And that’s an idea that should resonate in any sci fi action-er.
So now I have to ask myself: what was I so upset about? Why did I want this massive effort this work of hundreds if not thousands of hard-working craftspeople to fail?.
Well, the title “John Carter” does bother me, I guess. It speaks of a lack of faith in the source material and the concept. Would anyone have gone to see a movie awkwardly titled “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” if it wasn’t a book first? I read that the director, Andrew Stanton, said that no girl would see “John Carter of Mars” and no boy would go see “Princess of Mars.” And for saying that, I guess, I felt he deserved to be banished into The Has Been Zone. Because “John Carter” sounds like “Michael Clayton” or “Dolores Claiborne”or any number of nondescript dramas about middle aged people. So if you’re so terrified of not appealing to the all-hallowed teenage demographic, why in the world would you make your movie sound like it was for 40 somethings? Why not just “John Carter and The Princess of Mars”? Or if you must appeal to all things moron, “John Carter’s Adventure on Mars.”
And while, sure, I’m hoping Mr. Stanton learned the hard way to believe in one’s concept and principles. I have to say, I’m much more upset at Disney for the way they released the film in March and gave it one of the worst ad campaigns I’ve seen for a film of this scope and importance. The posters reminded me of Disney’s “A Far Off Place.” I mean, who the hell were they marketing to? Ever hear of an artist named Drew Struzan? Did the Star Wars Special Edition posters among hundreds of other awesome one sheets? Why wasn’t there an epic, lush poster campaign drawn by him to emulate the Pulp roots of the concept? There’s any number of ways to market a movie and Disney chose the worst way in all of them, the trailers, the poster art, the concept. They kept pushing the next Avatar when in actuality they had a more old-fashioned adventure. If anything it harkened back to lush pulp adventures like Sinbad and Conan.
And by the way: SCREW THE KID DEMOGRAPHIC. I can’t stand this mentality. If a story is good enough, kids will go see it. Kids are adults in training and quality has a way of making its way to the top. Even kids know that.
Now let me cut in here to complain a little bit about another aspect that kept me away: the lead actor. Taylor Kitsch (who?!) was moderately good in the part and from what I hear in the DVD commentary, a genius at pretending things were there on set when they weren’t. But he does lack a certain charisma to make you want to see the film. And that kept me away as well. I thought Disney was forcing a young, marketable-to-screaming-girls- lead on the production and felt that maybe the film would be as weak-kneed as its casting. And sure, I would’ve preferred Eric Bana as John Carter, (a completely underrated and underused actor.) Mr. Kitsch didn’t kill the movie at all. He was totally fine. In fact, everybody was perfectly fine in the film. The Princess played by Lynn Collins was a nice blend of sexy and tough that didn’t stretch plausibility and everyone else was well-cast. I will say that there was a distinct lack of star power to capture the imagination. But the effects work and animation made up for it. The effects work served the story and didn’t overwhelm. Though there was something a little bland about the whole look of the film. It could’ve had a more colorful palate ala the 1980 Flash Gordon.
To its credit, however, I came way with was a sense of longing, that I wanted the adventure and romance to continue. Stanton and company committed to their story. And that’s a rare thing these days. Even with Avatar, which too was a labor of love and unfortunately , beat this film to the punch, when it was over, I was sort of glad. Like, I’d seen enough. There’s nothing inherently interesting about Cameron’s story. (And I can’t really imagine sitting through two more Avatar sequels) With John Carter, I almost want to crack open the books again and start reading to see what happens next to the characters.
With movies like Avengers, Dark Knight Rises and Amazing Spiderman, when they were over, it was only what I didn’t like about them that filled my thoughts. John Cater doesn’t fall into that trap. It came close to transporting me into the stratosphere of forgetting my troubles and just existing in its world.
In other words, when I was a lad, after seeing such A list fare as Superman, Empire Strikes Back or Indiana Jones. I had that heart-thumping, running hell for leather out of the theater, whistling the film score feeling. With John Carter there was a slight twinge of that. I guess that puts it at a Clash of The Titans, Superman II and Tron level. It’s good, not great.
But it captured my imagination. A rare feat in the age of Transformers and GI Joe movies. If only Disney’s Marketing Campaign did. If those marketing clowns lost their jobs because of their tremendous failure, I am a little happy about that.