10 Years Later: John Carter

Words: Fabrice Gagos
Wednesday 09 March 2022
reading time: min, words

It flopped at the box office, but has this sci-fi adventure become worthy of cult classic status a decade later?


Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring : Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 132 minutes

What if I told you that the two-time Oscar winning director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo adapted a story written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of Tarzan, who inspired Avatar, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Superman, and probably Stargate)? Would you be at least a bit curious? Well, I can only answer this question for myself, but that would be a tad more exciting than, say, promoting yet another stupid and very expensive actioner ─ especially if the film is not an actioner. Well, that’s exactly what Disney did, almost breaking the record of the biggest bomb in film history in the process. John Carter may not be a masterpiece, but did not deserve such a fate and certainly not the schadenfreude that comes with it.

When John Carter hit the screens in 2012, trailers never mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs nor acclaimed director Andrew Stanton. It was just Disney’s John Carter – what a promise. This may explain, in part at least, why the film got such a cold reception. Most reviews complained of its lack of originality or for being boring for an action film, and some compared the film to Prince of Persia from the previous year, leaving me to wonder if they even saw the film or if they just watched the trailers and found a resemblance between the costumes. I even came across a review mocking the film because “We know there is no such life on Mars”. I guess they never heard about this new thing called cinema. 

Of course, John Carter being a 100-year-old story, everything may appear unoriginal. In a way, the “original” has become derivative of its copies, because it took so much time to make the project possible and also, and most importantly, because Disney thinks its audience is stupid. But that’s okay. Firstly, when was the last time we saw a sci-fi adventure that was not predictable – don’t get me started on the MCU – and secondly, well... don't get me started on the MCU. But, for those who don’t know, what exactly is John Carter all about? 

Well, this is the story of... John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a civil war veteran who finds himself transported to Mars – called Barsoom by its denizens, torn by a thousand-year war between the cities of Helium and Zodanga, the latter being recently helped by the Therns, a legendary god-like shape-shifting race, who provided them with a devastating weapon. To unite the two cities and bring peace to Barsoom, Sab Than (Dominic West), emperor of Zodanga, is due to marry Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of Helium. But refusing to become a trophy, the princess escapes and is later helped in her endeavour by Carter, who has been captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the leader of the Thars, a green Martian race. That’s a lot of exotic names, but don’t worry – we’ve seen worse.

Due to the difference of gravity and density – science! – Carter develops a superpower: he can jump very high and seems to have super strength. He thus becomes a valuable asset for Helium in the eye of the fierce princess Dejah. From here one can guess where it goes – John Carter is a classical fish-out-of-water story: Carter becomes the centre of attention in a place he does not understand and from which he only wants to escape, but maybe the life he can find here is better than the one waiting for him on Earth. And there’s a princess. And she’s pretty – as well as an excellent warrior and accomplished scientist.

A pleasant watch if you remember that this is a myth-making adventure, not an action flick

Is John Carter a masterpiece? Certainly not, but it is an excellent adventure film, the kind that simply takes you to another place for a moment. The hero's first moments on Barsoom are pure Pixar-esque delight, relying on mise en scene instead of dialogue to establish Carter’s super powers. There is not much exposition in the film ─ something some people may have a hard time with ─ and this is refreshing. Lately, films are plagued with characters explaining what they’re doing, and why. Also, you’ll find neither mid-life crisis from billionaires nor postmodern consideration in the film – sorry, we’re here for adventure.

While the main actors may not be great – although I don’t have any problem with them – they are accompanied by solid supporting actors like Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong and James Purefoy. Yes, I like James Purefoy, and thus he qualifies. Even Bryan Cranston got a small (hairy) part. Those are not the A-listers Disney may have hoped for, but still a smartly put-together cast. Additionally, the Thars who first capture Carter are a green martian race and are around fifteen feet tall and have four arms, and in the hands of a Pixar team they are really credible and the effects as a whole have honestly aged pretty gracefully.

It is still difficult to understand how Disney poured millions in an adventure film directed by one of the best talents at Pixar, only to just let it crash because of a very stupid and hubristic marketing campaign. With John Carter, Disney had a solid sci-fi adventure universe to explore which could have spawned a whole franchise. Maybe 2012 being the year when Disney bought Lucasfilm – and with it, the Star Wars licence – did not help Stanton’s film to be considered worthy of attention. After all, in 1986, when the company bought the rights for John Carter, this was precisely to counter Star Wars, which was then owned by Fox. 

But the project, deemed too expensive and difficult at the time due to its need for special effects to create the otherworldly creatures and technology of Barsoom, kept being postponed. In the Nineties, we even almost had a John McTiernan film starring Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, and I think it’s a shame we did not. Later, Robert Rodriguez’s version was also cancelled and, on this one, I believe we should consider ourselves lucky – Danny Trejo would have been a terrible princess of Mars.

Overall, I believe the main problem of John Carter lies in it being a Disney film. Disney used to have other “brands” like Buena Vista for distributing films too complex or mature, but the company retired this approach around 2007. Maybe John Carter would have benefited from a more adult-orientated treatment. In any case, we now have this version, for better or worse. But at least it is well crafted. It may not be well loved – and we will almost surely never have a “JCCU” – but over the time, John Carter seems to have gathered a community of fans, like many films that bombed in theatres but slowly became cult classics. Ten years later, I believe it is still far better than a lot of more cynical films Disney loves to hype up to sell us a Disney+ subscription. Worthy of becoming a classic or not, the film is a pleasant watch if you remember that this is a myth-making adventure, not an action flick. If you still haven’t seen it, go for it – and if you did see it but didn’t like it, maybe give it another shot. With some hindsight, you may find it entertaining, or hate me for making you lose two hours of your life... again. 

Did you know? Samantha Morton, who plays Sola, the rebellious Thark who befriends John Carter, was born in Clifton.

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