By its very premise, John Carter seems to promise its viewers one thing: lots of action. A war hero relocated to a war-torn Mars? C’mon now.
I’m happy to say that it didn’t deliver.
A common ailment of films these days – and I use the term “films” lightly – is that they’re packed with so much action to keep audiences interested is that the story, and consequentially the film itself, suffers. Carter, however, is fortunate enough not to suffer from this particular malady, but that’s not to say it doesn’t suffer at all.
Instead, what it seems to suffer from is maladaptation. The film industry has become a well-oiled machine pumping out blockbuster after blockbuster all possessing specific motifs that correlate with box-office success, a group to which the crossover genre, with which Carter proudly associates, belongs. From a business perspective, it’s a motif that would be foolish not to take advantage of, and it’s a perspective to which every potential pitfall the film makes can be attributed.
Carter rides on the coattails of Avatar and Cowboys and Aliens, films that not only identify as crossovers, but also belong to the Western sci-fi subgenre. The two were distributed by Universal and Fox respectively, and it’s clear that Carter’s release is Disney throwing its hat into the arena as well. (Perhaps even multiple hats, seeing as all three films leave the door open for sequels.)
The prospect of John Carter presented Disney with the easiest way to cash in on the latest trend: its source material, a collection of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame, was public domain, and as such Disney could not only create its own franchise – I’m willing to bet you “John Carter” isn’t public domain anymore – but also retain complete creative control. That control allowed for the Disneyfication of essentially everything in the film: the script, the art direction, the actors themselves… It all has a very specific quality to it that perpetuates a very specific brand, but stays true to the Disney corporation nonetheless. It all also, unfortunately, lends to the lesser overall quality of Carter as a whole.
The sketchy art direction is the clearest example of this: instead of creating new cultures on Barsoom, ones were created out of three things: the “archaic” (the Romanesque armies of the Red Men), the “exotic” (the reminiscence of both the Thark and Red Men’s cultures to Indus, Persian, and Mesoamerican societies), and the “futuristic” (the technology of sailing on light waves). Even when the filmmakers did try to contribute to the creation of a culture, the only places they did so – eg. in creating the Thark language – were precedents preset in the subgenre Disney was trying to replicate, such as Avatar Na’vi.
The casting, too, suffered from a distinct Disneyfication: as the title character, Taylor Kitsch comes off as too young, not only when paired with Lynn Collins’ Dejah (who, quite frankly, comes off as older than she actually is), but also in terms of believability. For me, was no way that kid had seen battle or suffered the death of his loved ones, and there was no way he had ever been a remarkable soldier. His rhetoric was neither believable nor commanding when calling the Tharks to arms. Moreover, the dialogue didn’t fit in his mouth: the Southern colloquialisms sounded strange and out of place, as if he was still reading off a page of his script. Even his saluting seemed wrong.
And, even despite not having any filler action in the film, it still felt empty to me. There’s no doubt in my mind that that the similarity between Burroughs’ John Carter, initials JC, a man who “dies” and is entombed only for his tomb to be revealed empty a few days later, and Jesus is an intentional one. Whether or not Disney picked up on such symbolism is of no consequence to me, but I can’t help but be disappointed when viewing their final project. Instead of giving us the man, or even the spirit, Disney has spent all their time and money on creating the most ornate, lavish tomb possible: they’ve created a strong, well-oiled vehicle for a story, but failed to tell the story itself. Even when I found myself caring more for the story itself at the film’s end, what was happening was more of my getting caught up in a carefully constructed ethos as opposed to the presence of an organic one. Disney’s JC may still be a savior, but I found myself wanting to follow the man’s xenomorphic dog more than the man himself.