I have never read the books John Carter is apparently based on and most of what I knew of John Carter going in was pre publicity for the film and the knowledge it is one of the ancestors of the genre. However, I did expect great things from the film based on the buzz I saw from online commentators. I think I was expecting something with the charm of Flash Gordon (arguably as direct a clone of John Carter as you can get) but with a bigger budget. What I saw was something more akin to Clash of the Titans while still keeping the Flash Gordon tradition of villains with English accents and heroes with American ones.
Apparently John Carter cost a lot to make, and there are a lot of signs of this: the cgi creatures are undoubtedly the high point of the film and some of the special effects are incredible. However, a lot of the costume design looks kitsch and ill fitting and the lighting of certain scenes is distinctly unsubtle. Overall there is an oddly pervasive 70s air that adds to my sense of disappointment.
The real problems, however, lie in the story: there is a lot of exposition at the beginning that makes sense as the film progresses but is needlessly confusing during the initial 20 minutes or so and I do feel could probably have been worked into the overall story more naturally. By the time the story proper actually began I cared little in remembering various characters names or the motivations overall. The different names that the planets were known by was an irritation and although the aliens were all distinct and thought had gone into their appearance and backstory I still couldn’t be bothered to remember what they were called.
Unfortunately, for all the work that had gone into the supporting cast’s personalities, characters seemed to act irrationally and form alliances for no clear reason. It was not a case so much as people’s motivations and aims coinciding as characters dismissing what they actually wanted to join foolhardy quests and other characters trusting one another unquestioningly. I didn’t have a sense there was ever any real aim on the part of most of the characters and how they actually hoped to achieve it from their actions remains a mystery to me. Worse, the relationships between them did not seem convincing or organic.
I am not trying to say that the film is woeful: it is just a missed opportunity. The star of the show is John Carter’s dog-like companion and the many species of Mars mainly make sense in context of one another. The only ones that don’t are the bipedal human analogues, as they share none of the physiology that would suggest a common evolutionary path. The film’s full of little niggles like that to make it somehow much less than the sum of its parts and episodic and rather random feeling. With a stronger plot and a little more aesthetic work it could have been great.