The worst thing about box-office flops, from a pure end-user perspective, is that they put the fear of God into studio executives and send them scuttling from any project that seems remotely similar. The predetermined-before-it-even-happened failure of John Carter probably means we won't get any retro pulp sci-fi movies for a while, so drink it in while you can.
Low expectations are tough to put aside when dealing with a film represents as major a financial misstep as this, but it gives one the benefit of low expectations. John Carter works much better than I expected it to, and though it never rises above well-executed pulp adventure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. There are some points one can pick at, but Andrew Stanton's first live-action feature as director (hopefully not his last) has a lot to recommend it, and should be sought out before the box office closes.
The unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch is the titular John Carter, a former Confederate soldier living out on the frontier, who, as is explained in an elaborate framing device, stumbles into a mysterious cave of gold, where he then is transported to distant Barsoom- or Mars, as we like to call it. There he is captured by a group of green, four-limbed barbarians called Tharks, and after learning their language, is caught up in a war between two groups of Red Martians, fighting on the side of the equal parts badass, lovely, and brilliant Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins.) It seems she's due to be married to local warlord Sab Than (Dominic West), who thanks to some enigmatic robed aliens is now in position of the Ninth Ray, a horrible destructive weapon, but also the energy that brought John Carter across worlds. Trying to get home, Carter finds himself drawn into a heroic cause.
The film has a bit of a problem getting up to speed, and some of that lies with Carter himself. There's nothing particularly wrong with Kitsch's performance that I can identify, but the character starts the story grizzled, cynical, and emotionally distant. This is demanded by the story, and it ends up being a good arc, culminating in an excellent battle scene interspersed with a brutal flashback to Carter's past, but the getting there takes a little patience.
There's plenty of fun surrounding him, though. Willem Dafoe does some glorious voice work as Tars Tarkas, the brutal but wise ruler of the Tharks, and the movie doesn't skimp on the weird aspects of Barsoom culture. Carter is actually raised with the Thark young on account of being found with them, and this leads to a rather touching subplot involving his caretaker Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), who's broken so many rules of the tribe that she's probably going to get executed sooner rather than later. Also, there is a doggie- a cute guard creature with super speed and the face of a happy pit bull. There's warmth and humor and a sense of unironic fun, and the personality the film projects is ultimately an amiable one.
It delivers on the action front too, fortunately- the plot is just sane enough that it doesn't get in the way of some very fun sequences, and while no one scene is a standout, it's consistently fun to watch Carter bound across the low-gravity Martian landscape. Make no mistake, the $250 million dollars it apparently took to bring this to the screen didn't go to waste- there are twisting airships and horrible giant albino apes and fabulous alien cities. Director Andrew Stanton goes a little heavy on the color saturation, but at least there's a logic to the color scheme beyond it looking cool.
So we're probably not getting any more of big screen adventures of Edgar Rice Burrough's planet-jumping hero, which means we have to savor the slightly-over-two-hours of Barsoom we get here. Though Disney's shareholders won't agree with me, I'm glad Stanton got the money he needed to realize his dream project, and I hope it'll join Terry Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the hall of "flops that didn't particularly have anything wrong with them." In any case, see it while you can. We won't be seeing anything like it for a long time.
Based on "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon
Directed by Andrew Stanton