John Carter is just Avatar on Mars, right? Wrong. Both are 3D sci-fi epics, both feature top-flight performance-capture CG and both cost roughly $250 million apiece.
But while the blue movie made $2.8 billion, John Carter’s red planet loss-maker struggled to earn $282m. That’s squeaky-bum time for studio suits. When the numbers came in, Disney movie boss Rich Ross fell – or was perhaps thrown – on his sword.
Ironic, then, that in every other respect John Carter is Avatar. It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel A Princess Of Mars, about an American Civil War veteran (Taylor Kitsch) who’s transported to the fourth rock from the sun (‘Barsoom’ not Mars, according to its four-armed, not-so-little green inhabitants).
Lower gravity gives him superpowers; his love for a Martian princess (Lynn Collins, sturdy) gives him a passionate cause. It feels over-familiar right out the gate, because everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar itself has plundered Burroughs’ source text.
Where John Carter excels is in its visual effects. Whether it’s a mo-capped, stiltwalking Willem Dafoe, or JC’s pet ‘dog’ (reminiscent of the Moog from ancient kids’ show Willo The Wisp), Mars is teeming with life.
It’s telling that neither Dominic West nor Mark Strong’s villains nor even John Carter himself are as interesting as Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas, conflicted leader of Martian tribe the Tharks.
More Tharks might have given John Carter more spark. Instead, this sci-fi epic is saddled with lumpy storytelling – its bloated two-hour-plus narrative killing emotional resonance like the Thark slaughter weak hatchlings.
As Hollywood squares off against the videogames industry in the battle for eyeballs, John Carter is one of a host of high-end blockbusters, from last year’s Battle: Los Angeles to this year’s Battleship, desperate to lure gamers off their consoles and back into the multiplex.
Where it goes wrong is instructive. Prizing epic spectacle over intimacy, it fumbles the chance to do what movies do best: tell us a story that we’ll actually care about.
Best of the Blu-ray extras is ‘360 Degrees Of John Carter’, a day-in-the-making-of doc let down only by a persistent bleeping digital clock. For Thark’s sake…