It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time again. Blockbuster season. The increasingly lengthy part of the year when Hollywood studios throw the vast majority of their budgets at a handful of tent-pole releases, competing for audience dollars in a barrage of explosive effects, unimportant and underdeveloped plots, and the ever present corporate sponsorship deals. It’s a risky time for Hollywood; a successful blockbuster can develop into a cash-cow franchise for years to come, whereas a failure can dangerously cripple even the most powerful studios. In 2012, Disney gets us underway with JOHN CARTER, a project stuck in production limbo for decades, finally realised by Pixar director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, FINDING NEMO) making his live-action debut. Getting out of the gate early to avoid any potential competition is a clever move by Disney, yet it’s hard to imagine that JOHN CARTER will come close to the kind of box-office revenues needed to consider it a financial success. It’s not a bad film; in fact there is much to be admired about Stanton’s work on a difficult property, but it exists in an uncomfortable middle-ground of being perhaps too dense and metaphorical for mainstream audiences whilst probably too generic and clichéd to impress hardcore sci-fi/fantasy fans.
What impresses most about JOHN CARTER is how, for the most part, Stanton is allowed to run free with the strangeness of the world in which the film is set. There are moments of pure brilliance, both visually and thematically, where the movie that Stanton so obviously wants to make are allowed to shine through, recalling the majesty of the opening act of his previous film WALL-E. The film doesn’t hold your hand and get bogged down with excessive exposition, but rather trusts that audiences are familiar enough with the sci-fi genre that not everything needs to be spelled out. Disney have to be commended for taking an unexpected gamble and refusing to simplify much of the more complicated areas of the story, but unfortunately it’s probably a gamble that will not pay dividends. There are moments where the plot is perhaps a little too obtuse, and the hard sci-fi conventions don’t blend well with a dull, immaterial romantic sub-plot that sees the emotional core of the film come off as a little hollow. Another brave move was in the casting of an unproven, if not entirely unknown lead actor in Taylor Kitsch, who growls his way through the dialogue in a satisfactory but unfortunately uncharismatic manner.
Sadly, where JOHN CARTER is going to suffer most is in its familiar and unoriginal storyline. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ BARSOOM series of novels are something of a Rosetta Stone to the sci-fi/fantasy genre, stretching back a century to A PRINCESS OF MARS, the novel on which Stanton’s film takes the majority of its plot. Being such a beloved and influential series works against Disney however, as Burroughs’ novels have been imitated, borrowed from, and essentially plucked clean by almost every other film in the genre. Now, when JOHN CARTER arguably should be respected for being a true original, instead what results is a stylistically and thematically dusty work. Had JOHN CARTER been made 40 years ago, before STAR WARS, AVATAR, and any number of similar films, it would have undoubtedly been a smash, but as it is today, it’s difficult to view it as much more than the same hackneyed story we’ve seen before. It’s a shame that Burroughs importance to the genre will be completely over the head of most audiences, but a little more outside-the-box thinking from Stanton and Disney may have been able to salvage the film and introduce a new generation to his work. JOHN CARTER is not going to break Disney, yet the almost inevitably disappointing box-office is certainly going to hurt. It’s a fascinating start to the season, and for better or worse JOHN CARTER will almost certainly go down as the riskiest prospect on the blockbuster calendar.