John Carter of Mars (2012; dir. John Staunton) raised for me questions of why and how. Why and how was such a movie made? I can’t properly characterize the badness of this film. Everything is bad: dialogue, music, acting, editing, the story. It is bad within the category of classically bad films. It’s so bad that there’s no pleasure in talking about its badness. It’s full of laughable lines, but there’s no irony or self-reflexiveness in their badness. They’re just atrocious. Everyone on Mars dresses like Romans. Instead of dogs, they have big lovable newts for pets. No chance this film will become a cult classic, like The Room. I’ve read a few pages of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which the film is based. I finish most books I start, but not this one. But the source novel is not the problem. A poorly adapted and written screenplay is the problem. The writing’s on the level of Flubber and Herbie the Lovebug.
Was John Carter targeted at a teenage audience, or an audience of comic book or sci-fi readers, or an adult audience? Whatever the target, the filmmakers misjudged.
Interestingly, the main character is a Civil War Confederate veteran who, while prospecting for gold out West, is suddenly transported to Mars. His Confederate origins make him a sort of man without a country or home, and he has flashbacks about finding his wife and daughter killed in the ruins of their burned house. On Mars, he finds a new home, and a new wife. If Martians have the same number of chromosomes as Earthlings, I guess he’ll have a new daughter.
John Carter is a Disney formula film. The father of a Martian princess plans to marry his daughter to the leader of an enemy nation for the sake of forging a peace treaty. A young man meets her, they seem to argue a lot, he rescues her, reveals and foils the plot that her would-be husband is planning, and saves the day. The young man and the princess fall in love and marry. Her reaction to his proposal of marriage reminded me of a Hallmark Hall of Fame greeting card. He gives her the wedding wing of his dead first wife.
The digitally created Martians are among the film’s virtues—they resemble a cross between the inhabitants of Avatar and Jar Jar Binks, without his shuffling and jiving. But they have personalities—human personalities. With the exception of their appearance, there is little that is unfamiliar about them. Without much of a film to carry them, what do they have to do?
I can understand why the Disney Studio chair lost his job over this film, whose ending sets up a sequel that I’m not betting on.