The box office has not been kind to “John Carter.” The sprawling science-fantasy epic cost more than $250 million to produce, but made less than a quarter of that in America its opening weekend. Some are already calling this flick “Ishtar 2.”
Interestingly, audiences who actually paid to see “John Carter” have been much kinder to the floundering film, and a positive word-of-mouth buzz has begun to stir the pot. Whether that’s enough to pull “John Carter” back from the brink of financial flop infamy remains to be seen. In any case, the future of the any planned sequels is in in jeopardy. That’s a shame, because, all in all, “John Carter” is pretty damn good.
Based on Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of genre-bending sword-and-stardust stories, “John Carter” sees the title character (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War-era cavalryman transported by means mysterious to him (and us) to the planet Mars, which he finds is neither airless nor lifeless, but dying. In addition, he finds his human muscles, accustomed to the greater gravity of Earth, make him capable of fantastical feats of strength and also allow him to make huge leaps that would turn The Incredible Hulk green(er) with envy.
Lost in this strange, alien environment, called “Barsoom” by the natives, Carter wanders in search of a way back home, but instead finds himself embroiled in conflicts both between and within the various tribes of Mars, which include the green-skinned, four-armed, tusk-faced warrior Tharks and the royal Red Martians. It is from the latter group that Carter encounters Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a strong-willed princess of the city-state Helium. A romance between the two slowly blooms as cataclysm looms over the red planet.
It’s sad, and damning evidence of Disney’s grossly incompetent marketing campaign, that many mainstream audiences think “John Carter” is some generic “Star Wars”/”Avatar” knock-off. The truth is that Burroughs’ “Barsoom” books are among the most unique and enduring adventure tales in the canon of American pulp fiction. That this adaptation has been in the works literally since the 1930s and that its release coincides with the centennial anniversary of the series’ original publication makes the misconception even more insulting.
Though the plot may seem predictable, it’s worth noting that this isn’t because “John Carter” is derivative, but rather because so many stories to come out since the original tales hit bookshelves, including the aforementioned “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” are derivative of Burroughs, not the other way around.
As it is, “John Carter” may just be the best film of its kind to hit screens nationwide since David Lynch’s “Dune” (make of that what you will). It inspires a genuine sense of awe and wonder, not to mention thrilling two-fisted fun, the way few films manage nowadays. Even better, it blends that with a strong emotional core, as well as subtext that manages to say much about the human condition despite the film being populated with characters who are, on the surface, anything but.
4 stars out of 5