Unreal Movie Review: John Carter

John Carter will be one of the most profound movie tragedies of our time. It’s a good movie, maybe even a great one, doomed to failure because of a bloated budget, confounding marketing and unimaginative critics and audiences.

I’ve been predicting the spectacular failure of John Carter for months now, and last week wrote an entire column explaining why the film would be a bomb of legendary proportions. I argued that quality had little to do with it. Rather, there’s no star actor or director, there isn’t a series behind it that general audiences are familiar with, and the two minute trailers displayed a confusing mess of action that left even sci-fi veterans like myself unclear of what exactly was happening.

And bomb, it has. John Carter made around $30M this weekend, when modest expectations were at $50M. It lost to the second week of The Lorax by a full $10M. But the real tragedy comes when you see just how bad Disney will be hit by this. The movie cost $250M to make, and untold hundreds of millions more to market. The bar was set at $700M worldwide that would warrant a sequel, and original source material ensured there were many more stories to tell.

$1M probably went into that dress alone.

I’m not gloating about being right. I was never rooting for John Carter to fail. I hoped it would be good, as I’m always on the hunt for new quality sci-fi. But if the entire thing was a mess it would be easier to write off as a deserved failure for all those involved. But the sad part is, it’s not. John Carter is actually a great film, an imaginative one that exists in an unfair world where Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time, and John Carter, its doppelganger might be one of the most devastating failures in movie history.

The two share more than these records. Both were risky ventures that relied on an unfamiliar cast and a strange sci-fi landscape and concept. I would argue that John Carter’s plot is far more interesting and complex, rather than the Dances with Wolves re-hash of Avatar. So what did James Cameron’s film have that John Carter does not?

Simply put, it had James Cameron. Avatar wasn’t just a movie, it was an experience. It was a coherent (if not original) story placed inside the most visually astonishing film ever created. The 3D made the entire medium seem worthwhile. The facial capture for the Na’vi was the most advanced in history. It was so mesmerizing, you had to recommend it to everyone you knew, and see it a few times for yourself.

Impressive, but not breathtaking.

John Carter on the other hand, is not an “experience.” It’s just a movie. It may be a solid, enjoyable film, but even with $250M of visual effects which are on display at all times, it’s nothing you’re going to run home and tell your friends about. I’m trying to do my part here to tell the masses that yes, even though it looks bizarre, and had zero hype surrounding it, it’s actually a very fun film, and one that doesn’t deserve to go down in history as a mammoth bust.

The plot is complex and confusing to explain in brief, but more importantly in a two minute movie trailer. It does, however, find coherence on the screen, and there had to have been a better way to sell it to audiences than fast paced shots of giant CGI snow apes.

John Carter (the man, played by Taylor Kitsch) is a confederate civil war veteran on the run from the law when he discovers a mysterious cave in the Arizona desert. He finds an extraterrestrial guardian there, and when attacked, kills him and takes hold of a medallion that transports him to a very, very unfamiliar land.

The place is Barsoom, a planet we know as Mars. He’s picked up by a local group of four-armed aliens, the Thark, who treat him like an animal, but soon marvel at his superior strength and his ability to jump several stories because of Mars’ diminished gravity.

This arena scene might have played out better if Star Wars hadn’t stolen it first.

He soon finds himself in the middle of a war between the more technological advanced “Red People,” humans with tinted skin and red tattoos who are fighting over the scraps of civilization of the once lush world. Carter meets Dejah (Lynn Collins), a Martian princess, and must help her defeat the looming threat of a warlord (Dominic West), aided by the supremely powerful Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

As I said, it’s not an easy concept to explain, but the film’s narrative is more accessible than it sounds under the expert direction of Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. The film is funny, exciting and emotionally resonant at times, and it’s clear there could be a lot more life in the universe, should a series ever actually spawn.

But it won’t, not with these numbers. Also tragic is the blow this could deal to the career of young Taylor Kitsch, the Friday Night Lights actor who was attempting to use this part to rocket him to stardom. I loved him in that show, and I thought he did a fine job here as well as the lost earthman. He has an understated charisma, and doesn’t deserve to be blamed for the failings of the movie, and neither does Stanton, yet I fear that’s what may happen. Though Kitsch’s next starring role in Battleship probably won’t help his case very much.

It’s a throwback to action movies of old, where they threw ridiculousness at you with a wink and smile. John Carter is a fun, well-scripted, original take on hundred year old science fiction, and deserves better than to be a colossal failure. Do your part to help save it, and go see it for yourself.

4 out of 5 stars

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  1. *applause* this review puts my exact thoughts on the movie and its box office problems in writing. I honestly think this movie will have more legs than people are expecting it to. But that may just be wishful thinking.
    One more note, it seems to be doing amazingly well overseas and it grossed another 100 million this past weekend in worldwide ticket sales alone and it broke box office records in Russia. Now that may sound like I’m grasping at straws but it does leave a small window of hope open for a sequel to possibly, maybe hopefully happen. What can I say, apparently I’m a glass half full kind of guy. Unless that glass has twilight shit in it, then that glass is half empty.

  2. i dont get it..i watched the movie in theatre and it was NOT a good movie..ok, it had tons of CGI but goofy dialogs and a predictable story. even as a fan of scifi, i would not recommend watching it.

  3. I actually really wanted to see this so I’m glad you’ve done a good review of it, kind of justifies my cinema admission ticket. Whether I agree if its good or not is another thing 🙂

  4. Here’s the rub: You really can’t accept Hollywood’s numbers on budgets. My cousin worked as one of Mike DeLuca’s assistants while he was head of New Line. She taught me lots of the ins and outs of the business, and how Hollywood accounting makes it look like most films lose money.

    In this case, because John Carter is a Disney picture doesn’t have to make it’s money back at the B.O. Part of the problem is that in my area, I would’ve had to 17 dollars on Friday or Saturday to see the film. That’s just BS.

    No matter how bad, every movie will have it’s fans. As someone said, it’s already made 100M worldwide. It’ll make back it’s production budget from the BO revenue surely.

    I also think JC will have a bit longer legs than most films, with only 21 Jump Street releasing this week. (Which looks like Cop Out without Kevin Smith, Bruce Willis, and Tracy Morgan.) Of course another issue is that in two weeks The Hunger Games will crush everybody.

    Look at to the original colossal flop, Dune. One of the most expensive films for it’s day, how many view it as a classic now?

  5. Most people saw this bomb coming a mile away.

    And what was unfamiliar about the cast of Avatar? Sam Worthington, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi and Sigourney Weaver are unfamiliar to general audiences?

    Does anyone else picture Christian Bale screaming “JOHN CARTER!” when you hear this movie referenced? I know he’s not in it, it just makes me chuckle.

  6. this is the problem with box iffice numbers.

    high numbers dont mean its good, and low numbers dont mean its bad.

    and some people just dont understand that

  7. I think with overseas sales and word-of-mouth this will eventually succeed, especially once you add DVD/Blue Ray sales. I remember someone once was interviewing Kevin Costner and mentioned the failure of Waterworld and he snapped at the guy, informing him that it made a ton of money and made a lot more than it cost. And it was true, due to the huge overseas sales.

    On a side note, I think going to the movies in general has become insanely expensive. I have two kids, and we went to The Lorax last week. It was over $20 just for tickets for the 3 of us during matinee hours, and the bucket of popcorn and bucket of drink, which were by far the closest thing to a “value,” were $13 together. Its actually cheaper, far cheaper, to wait 3 months and buy the DVD and watch it from your flat screen TV at home. And while I hate that, I do it. Especially when you factor in babysitting if me and the wife go to a movie. Remember when dinner and a movie was a “cheap date?”

  8. I read the books when I was young and the movie does them justice. THis movie is so superior to the trash movie Avatar as to be a joke. Sadly though this is not about quality cinema but budgets and numbers.

    In its simplest term I took my two sons and a friend to see this moview and we all enjoyed it more than Avatar. The society of the Tharks is well realised and portrayed, the characters better and the story is the original and not the shadows that came after.

    Awesome movie.

  9. “No star actor or director”? You say yourself that it’s from Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Even excluding all the other bad marketing, Disney not including this fact in ANY of it might be one of the biggest marketing blunders I’ve ever seen. Maybe hammer on that fact instead of, “Hey, this guy’s name is John Carter! No, not the one from ER.”

  10. 1. I like the movie. A lot. And it did not take me $250+ million to see it.
    2. I couldn’t find a few favorable reviews (including this one) in Rotten Tomato. Why? Who determine what’s in RT anyhow?

  11. Oh comon… it’s clearly a disney movie. And that is what ruins it. Blue blood spilling around, a heart breaking monologue which almost made me sleep in cinema and the obligatory beast which looks sweet anyway is not what i expected from this movie.
    It could have been pretty cool… nice costumes, cool characters and a great plot could have made this movie more than it was. I was really disappointed after i’ve seen it.

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