John Carter isn't nearly as bad as the buzz would have you believe...but then, it's not terribly good, either. Released in March, an anemic North American box office performance doomed its financial success with a final tally of $72 million. Even combined with a very respectable foreign gross of $209 million and home video sales, it won't be nearly enough to make the Disney film profitable with its estimated budget of $250 million (not including the expensive costs of marketing and revenue sharing with theatre owners). Ultimately, John Carter's weak performance lead to the departure of Disney studio chief Rich Ross. Click over to my post from March about the wisdom of Disney taking on the project and their poor handling of the film's marketing campaign.
Enough with the overshadowing business distractions of John Carter - does the film's artistic side have any merit? Certainly, although it's notably hampered by an overly confusing plot that employs a patchwork of storylines and themes now more than familiar to sci-fi fans. You can't really fault the film for that familiarity - based on John Carter of Mars, the century-old pulp adventure series from author Edgar Rice Burroughs, nearly all science fiction cinema from the past 50 years is directly or indirectly influenced by Burroughs' work. Ironically, the ghosts of the likes of Avatar, Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord Of The Rings end up dulling the impact and sense of adventure John Carter delivers. A brief plot synopsis: while searching for gold in Arizona, Civil War veteran John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) stumbles upon a medallion that transports him to Mars (known as "Barsoom" by its inhabitants). Carter's ability to survive without oxygen on the Red Planet is never explained, but due to his different bone density and Mars' low gravity, he's able to leap massive distances and possesses enhanced strength. He finds himself captured by a posse of Tharks, a gangly ten foot tall, tusked, and four-armed tribal species. Both parties soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the long-warring cities of Zodanga and Helium, with a romance developing between Carter and Helium's Princess Dejah Thoris (played by Lily Collins). Prominent Zodangan bad guy roles are played by Dominic West and Mark Strong, with lead Thark characters being voiced by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston also has a small supporting role.
For a guy with seemingly everything going for him before John Carter was released (having had a prominent role in TV's critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights, upcoming starring roles in high profile "tent-pole" movies, and the looks of a model, which he was), Kitsch now finds himself in the unlikely position of inspiring pity from the public after the similarly disastrous showing of his latest film, Battleship. I can't really say he acquits himself any better than "decently" as Carter. While he certainly looks the part of the action hero, there's an absence of the charm and mischievousness that usually inhabits the lead characters in this kind of throwback Saturday afternoon matinee fare. Kitsch isn't completely devoid of charisma, mind you, but there's enough of a deficiency here that it impacts, for example, the effectiveness of his character's occasional stabs at humour. There's also only low-wattage chemistry between Carter and Collin's princess character, who speaks in an English accent and distractingly uses Brit expressions like "rubbish", which just sounds weird coming from a Martian.
Andrew Stanton, with a host of directing and writing credits for some of Pixar's best films, makes his live-action directing debut here, although John Carter is a movie that relies very heavily on CGI. That's actually its best feature - many of the visuals are downright spectacular, especially the fluid animations of the Tharks. Unfortunately, all that high tech prettiness can't save John Carter from the mediocrity that permeates the rest of the movie.