When Two Worlds Collide: ‘The Ugly Truth’ about Andrew Stanton’s John Carter

On June 29, 2012 by Torsten Reitz

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, left) and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, right) in the Mars desert.

Expectations were enormous when Disney’s long-announced new live-action 3D blockbuster John Carter hit theaters in March. At an estimated budget of a ‘mere’ $250 million, John Carter is the fourth-most expensive film of all time. The studio was certainly willing to take that risk, given its good experiences with such big-budget blockbusters as the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels and the animated Tangled. John Carter was supposed to be Disney’s answer to James Cameron’s 3D spectacle Avatar, a science-fiction adventure set in an alien world that would make use of the technology’s manifold possibilities.

Nothing has gone according to plan, however – as has been the case several times in Disney’s recent history. John Carter is the studio’s fourth big-time flop since 2010. The blockbusters Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well as the animated Mars Needs Moms all failed to meet the giant expectations. Disney had hoped that John Carter would reverse that trend – especially since it had director Andrew Stanton from its Pixar successes Finding Nemo and Wall-E at the helm.

The studio is said to have invested approximately $350 million in the movie so far. Because of poor attendance figures during its theatrical run, projections are that Disney has lost roughly $200 million on the blockbuster alone. Studio head Rich Ross stepped down in late April, citing the company’s operation loss of $80 to $120 million in the first quarter of 2012, combined with the flop of John Carter, as reasons for his resignation. The film has already been subject to scrutiny, but is it really as bad as its reputation suggests?

Based on the book A Princess of Mars by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, the movie is the story of Civil-War-veteran-turned-gold-digger John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). He flees from prison and is pursued by the military. When Carter gets into a gunfight with Indians, he seeks shelter in a cave. There, he touches a medallion and – hey presto – finds himself in a completely different world that seems to grant him superhuman powers. After he has met the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Carter is astounded to learn that he has landed on Mars – and that there is just as much unrest on the Red Planet as on Earth.

Sounds like the recipe for your typical Hollywood blockbuster, doesn’t it? And in a way, John Carter is exactly that. The film isn’t as nearly bad as it’s said to be, but when you watch it, you can’t escape the feeling that, somewhere, somehow, you’ve seen it all before. It’s a lukewarm mix of elements from George Lucas’s Star Wars saga, David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, the cheesy Conan features with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, Avatar. As such, the copycat blueprint is nothing new in Hollywood and doesn’t pose too much of a problem, but the real issue at hand is that the medley is rather half-baked.

For that reason, John Carter falls short of what everyone hoped it would be, although there aren’t any complaints about the movie’s audiovisual delivery. Technically, it’s certainly well-done, but the storytelling as a whole is nothing special, a little trashy, and can be summed up in brief by summoning the leading man’s last name. The real shame is that the acting chops of the fine cast go to waste. Apart from Kitsch and Collins, the film also stars a renowned ensemble consisting of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Mark Stone, Thomas Haden Church, Ciáran Hinds, Dominic West, and Bryan Cranston.

The bottom line is that John Carter definitely isn’t the worst blockbuster in recent years. Audiences have been exposed to far worse as of late. That doesn’t excuse the fact that John Carter remains a $250 million failure. When pitted against the Clash Of The Titans remake, the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels, or the last two installments of Transformers, it actually compares rather favorably. It’s just that the viewers finally seemed to have stood up and taken the liberty to refuse to accept the lackluster junk food the Hollywood industry has served them – and John Carter must take the rap for their decision-making.

The film is still no masterpiece by any means, and Stanton hasn’t done himself any favors by directing it. ‘Cobbler, stick to your last,’ and he probably should’ve stuck to making fantastic animated features at Pixar, indeed. That’s not to say that Stanton can’t direct live-action movies, although he seems to be a little over his head here. Also, you can only hope that the film won’t ruin the careers of Kitsch and Collins, both of whom hadn’t been stars in such a big project before. So should you spend your hard-earned money on John Carter? If you like somewhat trashy science-fiction and fantasy, feel free to check it out, and maybe you’ll dig it – if only as a ‘guilty pleasure.’ As a fan of more sophisticated cinema, however, don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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