?As you may have heard, John Carter tanked this weekend, coming in second place to The Lorax‘s second week and making only $30 million U.S. It’s a damn shame, because John Carter is a good film — not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but very good — that deserved a lot better than a botched marketing campaign and a title only fit for those movies about hard-nosed principals who come in and clean up troubled high schools. Since there are some spoilers, the review is after the jump.
The movie does not start out well, mainly because it starts about four times. First it’s a visually exciting but utterly confusing battle on Mars, because we don’t know any of the characters or what the hell is going on. Then John Carter is racing to deliver a telegram to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs, while being tailed by a mysterious guy. Then Burroughs shows up to discover his uncle has died and left him his journal, which Burroughs reads, and then we get to John Carter prospecting several years ago and then he gets captured by the U.S. cavalry and then they get attacked by Indians and Bryan Cranston is there for no reason and then John Carter hides in a cave and ends up on Mars, finally.
It’s a needlessly complicated beginning for a not particularly complex story, and beginning on Mars immediately disorients the audience — I don’t know why they didn’t just introduce the story through JC’s eyes as he explores Mars. Because once he gets there, the movie improves considerably. Director Andrew Stanton does an excellent job making Mars at first seem like an normal desert where Carter keeps inadvertently leaping — thanks to Mars’ lower gravity — and then slowly piling on the alien weirdness until it becomes obvious he’s not on Earth any more.
In fact, the alien weirdness is one of John Carter‘s main strengths — the landscape, the cities, the airships, the aliens, the weapons, everything, they’re all fantastic designed. They’re all clearly inspired by classic pulp art, but somehow not at all dated. The aliens, while slightly cartoony, still convey personality and menace and tenderness and heft in a way that Avatar‘s Na’vi tried and failed to do, in my opinion. The cities and buildings and architecture are especially stunning; John Carter has a real sense of visual splendor, and things you’ve never seen before — seriously, the movie makes James Cameron’s Avatar look like it was just blue and glowy.
Happily, the same is true of the action. It’s all marvelous exciting, and it is a pretty action-packed movie. I can’t say I was never bored, because the film has a few overlong character development scenes where JC has to be a relunctant hero and the princess has to chide him, but those are few and far between. When watching the action set-pieces, I couldn’t help thinking that I wish I had been as excited and entertained during any of the (very similar) scenes in the Star Wars prequels. Seriously, I think I could match every single John Carter action scene to an action scene in the prequel trilogy, and John Carter did all of them better.
I understand, of course, that that is also part of the movie’s problem. But overall I liked it, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for, but it was a very entertaining two-hour adventure that surpasses a lot of similar movies from the last few decades. I definitely recommend it — I think it’s especially worth seeing in IMAX, if you have the chance — and I’m bummed that it almost certainly won’t be getting a sequel. Unless, of course, this means Disney puts more effort into Tron 3, in which case I’ll be all right.