John Carter (2012)

john carter

7/10

John Carter of Mars, damnit!

I understand it now. John Carter is the version of Jupiter Ascending that worked. Or, more precisely, the Wachowskis created a failed version of John Carter with their own space romance. For a moment, the similarities shocked me. Both have this pulpy b-science fiction plot in which a lowly Earthling is suddenly thrust into a world of alien royalty, gets involved in a clash between the alien nobles, and gains an alien lover. Our human heroes also have special powers that make them stand out amongst the aliens: Jupiter is of royal blood, and John Carter is powerful in the low gravity of Mars.

I’d like to point out some more similarities in the visual production. Look at this.

The flashy exotic royalty in combination with high tech.

jupiter ascending2b

The birdlike ships.

john carter1b

Although, to be fair, there are a thousand other movies that you could recognize in John Carter, like Avatar and Star Wars.

I first saw John Carter alone while travelling and I loved it. It is very groan-inducing with bad names like Barsoom and cities like Helium, and that by itself should tell us that we shouldn’t take this story very seriously. But at the same time, the world-building is visually very engaging and the effects are really top-notch. The whole film looks like a lot of effort was poured into it. From the first scenes, this atmosphere of tongue-in-cheek pulp storytelling is obvious, and therefore I think it is still strange that they gave the film such an unassuming title: John Carter. It isn’t flashy enough; it doesn’t convey anything. I think one reason why the film didn’t do well at the box office is because of decisions like these.

The film has a nice pace to it and isn’t such a mess as Jupiter. There’s a straightforward story of Carter moving from the old wild west to Mars, following a rather standard Campbellian storyline. Lots of humour infuse the scenes, like John escaping from the sheriff, and his first ballerina dance on Mars, the aliens who think that he looks strange too, and the super-fast pet dog that follows him around. It’s also funny how the setting with the green aliens on Mars is basically the same environment for Carter as the Wild West with Indians on horseback.

john carter2

This film deserved a better reception. It’s just a very solid adventure story with lots of arresting images, from baby aliens to creepy blue-eyed monks. A large cast of side characters make it all just a little bit more interesting, with actors like Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston and Ciaran Hinds. And the “princess of Mars” is a smart and capable woman, although Lynn Collins is overacting. Only John Carter himself is a bit of a blank slate. Taylor Kitsch as Carter was too serious, I think. The film needed someone wacky, like a Jack Sparrow from the Pirates movies. The romance was also horribly cheesy, but it is a bit in line with the pulpy setup of the thing.

Far better than any of the Star Wars prequels, it has more natural characters, more inspiring visuals and a storyline that at least progressed logically (well… it fell apart in the second half). One reason this didn’t turn into a franchise is because it is just a bit too silly, I suppose. It is rich in ideas, but has no unity in its themes. It is more like a compilation of ideas that isn’t immediately recognizable or profitable. It also had no big actor to draw crowds, and a failed marketing campaign.

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