First things first, John Carter is mediocre. Some parts are really fun (the flashbacks, the last ten minutes, Dejah Thoris’ character), others are laughable (the inconsequential Martian terra, the gravitas with which the actors deliver their lines), and the rest is forgettable. You won’t feel like you’ve wasted your $15/ticket, but you’ll be able to think of quite a number of things you’d rather have spent your money on.
The movie is about a Civil War veteran, the eponymous “John Carter,” who is mysteriously transported to Mars where, because of its weaker gravity, he is able to leap great distances and perform fantastic feats of strength. He gets captured by a more primitive Martian race caught between two more technologically advanced peoples at war. John Carter wants to get home to Earth, but along the way he falls in love with a Martian princess. Complications abound.
My biggest complaint about the movie’s narrative is that I found any one of the many subplots much more interesting than John Carter’s story. I would have liked to see a whole movie focused on what we glimpse in flashbacks to Carter’s life with his wife and daughter. I would have loved to have ninety minutes of Carter searching Earth for the talisman that would transfer him back to Mars instead of the ten minutes we get at the end of the movie. Dejah Thoris’ character and conflict is fascinating. She is a brilliant, Martian beauty with no authority who wants to do anything but marry the man to whom her father betroths her in a mad grab for peace. One of the four-armed Tharks has suffered a history of abuse. Why? And how does her connection to the Thark leader play into her mistreatment? Any of these narratives would have made a more compelling movie than the one that exists.
At the center of every story should be a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. John Carter wants to go home, but his means of travel is no more than ten feet from him for most of the movie, and yet he seems to make no real effort to obtain it. He simply lets events swirl around him, and so the movie lacks forward momentum. Put the medallion in the hands of the villain, keep it ever out of John Carter’s reach, and this mediocre movie becomes something special.
John Carter has received a lot of bad press, much of it even before the movie was released. People criticize it for all sorts of reasons, some of them just, some of them not. Fueling all these criticisms however, is the much quoted price tag of this space opera – $250 million. Studios are reticent to report the actual costs to produce their movies precisely because of the backlash that such figures can inspire, so it’s difficult to tell exactly what John Carter cost to make. That being said, if the film did indeed cost that much money to make, it ought to cause us pause.
$250 million dollars is a tremendous amount of money, and in a day when it is becoming increasingly economical to make movies, one has to question whether that kind of spending is justified. The quality and even the presumed profits of the movie are inconsequential, because even if the movie proves to be successful, then we, as a society, spent $250 million to be entertained.
Movies have proven to be a consistent source of divine revelation in my life. God meets me in the theater, and I am as ardent a fan of cinema as anyone I know, but I have been as moved by $150,000 productions as I have by $180 million ones. The defining factor seems to be truth reflected off the screen, not the money poured into the image. When we go to the theater and pay to see movies like John Carter, we are championing big spending, not encouraging the creation of truthful stories. We owe ourselves better than that. We should demand it with the only critical voice the industry always pays attention to – our pocketbooks. John Carter is a passable movie, but we can do better.