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“John Carter” box office bomb? It’s Disney’s fault, not the filmmakers!

Posted on March 20th, 2012
Posted on March 20th, 2012

by Coop Cooper

Exactly 100 years ago, “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the novel “A Princess of Mars” which was serialized and published in “The All-Story” magazine beginning in 1912. Thus began the “John Carter of Mars” novel series which ended in 1964, fourteen years after Burroughs’s death.

Now in 2012, after many tries and failures reaching all the way back to 1931, the first film adaptation of the series has released in theaters under the title “John Carter.” The result is a rousing spectacle of a sci-fi/fantasy film, the likes of which were common in the 1980’s, but are sorely missed today.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Confederate cavalry officer with a tragic past, heads to the Arizona territory in 1968 in search of gold. After an attack by Apaches, he escapes into a cave and finds his gold, but he also finds an alien artifact which transports him to Mars. “Barsoom” as the natives call it is populated by green, tribalistic “Tharks” who at first enslave John Carter but are soon won over by his heroism and his superhuman abilities, a side effect of the planet’s low gravity. Carter soon finds himself in the middle of two technologically advanced races of humans fighting over supremacy of Mars. He falls in league with the beautiful princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) who wishes to free her planet from enslavement by the tyrannical Sab Than (Dominic West). However, the mystical and powerful “Thern” race has been manipulating the war towards genocide and Carter eventually discovers their plans to do the same to Earth.

The film succeeds on several levels, one of which is the sheer pageantry of the production. One of the reasons “John Carter of Mars” was never adapted to film until now is due to the overwhelming special effects challenges the material presented. Now with films like the “Star Wars” prequels and “Avatar” blazing the way, “John Carter” could be made much more cost efficiently. However, “John Carter” succeeds over these other properties with a stronger story and more interesting characters. Served with a hearty slice of cheese, “Carter” doesn’t take itself too seriously. The alien costumes are hokey and much of the production design harkens back to disco-era sci-fi films like “Flash Gordon” (1980) and “The Dark Crystal” (1982) but this also lends to the film’s retro-charm. There are also healthy elements of “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “Dune,” “Conan the Barbarian” and even “Superman” which all work together to completely draw the audience into the wondrous Martian fantasy world.

One of the neat devices introduced into the film is author Edgar “Ned” Rice Burroughs (Daniel Sabara) himself as a character in the film. This fictionalized version of Burroughs is the nephew of John Carter who is pouring over his late uncle’s memoirs and uncovering Carter’s first-hand accounts of his adventures on Barsoom. This results in a clever and satisfying meta-twist that comes full circle at the end, possibly explaining how Burroughs came up with the “John Carter” novel series.

I found it slightly irritating that Disney did not market this film for the big-budgeted, action-packed spectacle that it is. It is rare when a movie on-par with “Star Wars” is released these days. This film should have received the kind of hype reserved for the grandest of blockbusters. Perhaps without a major star in the cast, studios lost confidence in the end product. Fans of the novel series were certainly put off by the exclusion of the “of Mars” from the title, a marketing gaffe that thankfully was made up for by the end of the film when the filmmakers revealed they were more clever and loyal to the source material than the fans realized.

If I have any criticisms of the film itself, it comes from the confusing action during many of the battle scenes when it became impossible to tell who the good and bad guys were amidst the gunfire and explosions. There was also some extremely clumsy dialogue and complicated explanatory scenes which became irrelevant once the action took over the story. I’m still not sold on Taylor Kitsch as a versatile leading man, but as John Carter, I’ll give him a huge break since he can obviously play a capable and iconic action hero with ease. I’m also trying to find out where the gorgeous Lynn Collins has been hiding because her fetching performance as the Princess of Mars will certainly earn her more action-film heroine roles.

John Carter” is the “Star Wars” of 2012. A fitting film for a beloved, 100 year-old novel series. Take a bunch of kids to see it and watch it blow their minds.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

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