Will “John Carter” rank among the all-time bombs?

Disney bet $250 million on an unproven star and a century-old western set on Mars. And it almost pays off

Topics: John Carter, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Movies, Action movies,

Will "John Carter" rank among the all-time bombs?Taylor Kitsch in "John Carter"

In considering the fate of “John Carter,” the Disney studio’s $250 million gamble on a Wild-West-goes-to-outer-space yarn that’s 100 years old, it’s tempting to observe that two of the biggest box-office bombs in recent Hollywood history have been movies set on Mars. With little sense that the barrage of worldwide publicity has built up much public appetite for “John Carter,” is the Mouse prepared for No. 3?

You can’t say Disney wasn’t warned. One of those Martian elephant eggs was a quite recent Disney film, one the studio and the rest of us have done a good job forgetting. The execrable anti-feminist animated nightmare “Mars Needs Moms” came and went without much fuss a year ago, but viewed through a long lens it looks like one of the biggest disasters in film-industry history, piling up net losses in the ballpark of $140 million. The difference may have been that by the time “Mars Needs Moms” was released, Disney knew it was a turkey. Even at this writing, nobody knows quite what to expect from “John Carter,” a long-long-brewing Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation that marks the live-action directing debut of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, director of “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo.”

My verdict is that while “John Carter” may well go down in history as a great folly, it’s no “Mars Needs Women.” (Nor is it the misbegotten 2000 adventure flick “Red Planet,” with Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss, which reportedly cost $100 million to make and earned back about a third of that.) It’s a profoundly flawed film, and arguably a terrible one on various levels. But if you’re willing to suspend not just disbelief but also all considerations of logic and intelligence and narrative coherence, it’s also a rip-roaring, fun adventure, fatefully balanced between high camp and boyish seriousness at almost every second. Stanton even makes a case, of sorts, for the relevance of the Carter yarns, which were pretty nearly the first American science fiction and prefigured so much that would come later, from Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury to “Planet of the Apes” to “Star Wars” to “Avatar.” Whether there’s anywhere near enough mass interest in this antediluvian franchise to turn it into a 21st-century hit, well, I’m afraid that’s quite another story.

One might almost compare “John Carter” to Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” even though the films are quite different in stylistic and generic terms. Both are sumptuous, grandiose and profoundly silly spectacles, liable to inspire over-the-top flames from some viewers and impassioned defenses from others. At this point Disney would probably accept a similar outcome with gratitude; while “Mission to Mars” was one of the worst-reviewed movies of the 2000s (at least in the United States), it came close to breaking even overall.

Filmmakers have eyed Burroughs’ series of novels about John Carter — a former Confederate cavalryman turned Western adventurer who is thrown into the three-way civil war waging on Mars (sorry, “Barsoom”) — as potential material since at least the 1930s. You have to admire Stanton for wading so confidently into that long history of failure, talking big about spinning this unknown hero and his unproven star (Taylor Kitsch, of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) into a three-film franchise. He signed up novelist and pulp aficionado Michael Chabon to rewrite the screenplay, perhaps to lend the project some geek authenticity. I think that’s cool and all — but A) there’s no way to make Edgar Rice Burroughs not seem silly, and B) seriously, who’s going to care? Are there legions of Burroughs buffs out there demanding fealty to the text of “A Princess of Mars”?

Indeed, that’s my mystified reaction to “John Carter” in general: So, the “WALL-E” guy has made an immensely expensive special-effects movie that combines a western and a sword-and-sandal epic and a proto-steampunk action-adventure, and is set on Mars. That’s kind of interesting! But what the hell were they thinking? It doesn’t help that “John Carter” gets off to a slow and murky start, lurching back and forth between the digitally created “predator city of Zodanga,” which is bent on conquering all of Mars, and our eponymous hero pursued through the rainy streets of Manhattan, circa 1881. That narrative encloses another one, when Carter dies suddenly and leaves his nephew, Edgar “Ned” Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), his private journal, and then two more, when the journal reveals how Carter discovered a mysterious cave years earlier in the Arizona Territory and was thence teleported into a new life on another world.

Things pick up considerably once Carter — played by the muscular, long-haired Kitsch with a persistent wise-ass smirk that somehow isn’t obnoxious — reaches the surface of Barsoom and is captured by the Tharks, a violent but noble race of 9-foot-tall, six-limbed aliens with walrus tusks and a vaguely Christian mythology. It’s a little bit “Avatar” and a little bit “Planet of the Apes” and a little bit “Man Called Horse” and even a little bit “Tarzan,” and yes, I know that the Carter franchise predates all of those (even Tarzan, whom Burroughs invented after Carter). Possessed of godlike superpowers in the lower Martian gravity, Carter bounds around in obviously fake fashion, rescuing the sultry and nubile Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of the besieged city of Helium, who is supposed to be a scientific genius but spends most of her screen time looking bodacious in increasingly skimpy Barsoomian fashions. Yeah, the warring humanoid city-states of Mars are called Helium and Zodanga. I giggled too. Burroughs established an all-time low in dopey science-fiction names, pretty much at the moment of the genre’s creation.

There’s one-on-one gladiatorial combat and big, chaotic battle sequences and an incomprehensible plot involving the vicious and stupid prince of Zodanga (Dominic West), who’s being manipulated by three immortal guys in robes (led by the always excellent English actor Mark Strong) who claim not to give a damn about anything but also seem to feed off planetary destruction. Or something. Zodanga! Playing the ruler of Helium and father of Dejah Thoris, Irish actor Ciarán Hinds gets to wear the most awesome military uniform I’ve ever seen, which appears to have been jointly designed by Julius Caesar, George Washington, Idi Amin and Karl Lagerfeld. (Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional Arab dictator can eat his heart out.) At its best, “John Carter” is a mightily impressive spectacle, cleanly photographed in dusty reds and brilliant blues by Daniel Mindel, which dares to straddle that elusive boundary between awfulness and wonderfulness. It’s awfully wonderful, or wonderfully awful.

As so often with big, expensive Hollywood disasters, the real problem with “John Carter” is tone. Can you think about “Battlefield Earth” or “Ishtar” or “Waterworld” or “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” — with a net loss amounting to 94 percent of its production cost, pretty much the all-time dog — without laughing? Big movies fail when those who make them lose all perspective on how to make them and whom they’re making them for — when they strike a tone that’s completely misguided, and often unintentionally hilarious. You can feel Stanton struggling to bring the confidence, wit and style of “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” to bear upon this leviathan, but he can’t quite pull it off. Whatever tone he’s trying to impart gets eaten by the pure bigness of the project, and you’re never sure whether he’s embracing this ludicrous, antiquated fable of a pioneer American on Mars, or making fun of it. You could argue that that ambivalence is interesting on some intellectual level, sure. But from a commercial point of view it’s contagious, and likely to be fatal. Don’t buy your ticket for the sequel quite yet.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>