John Carter did poorly in theaters. The funny thing is, the stories about it doing poorly were published well before the film came out; even before anyone had reviewed it. The doomsday reports were based on polls, which found few people knew about or planned on seeing it.
So, the first thing most people knew about this movie was it was destined to fail.
Which is sad, cause the thing is, John Carter is actually a very entertaining movie. The acting is good, the special effects are great, and it displays a version of science fiction that is very uncommon these days. It’s the kind of sci-fi that used to be written in the 1800s, when authors compensated for their scientific ignorance with unbound imagination.
John Carter’s journey in the film (aside from the one to Mars) is one of re-engagement with humanity (which ironically only happens when he meets some non-humans). John lost everything in the Civil War, a war fought on behalf of other people. Since then, he’s refused to become involved with anyone else. In that way he protects himself. If he doesn’t care about anyone, he can’t suffer the pain of losing them.
You may think that the movie will end with John taking up a noble cause and putting his life on the line for the sake of others; but it doesn’t, really. He does, in fact, take up arms in the Martian wars; but only to save the woman he loves, and by extension, himself from feeling the pain of losing her. He’s just as insular in the end as he was at the beginning. But isn’t everyone?
Are the things people do for their loves truly selfless, or are they just based on selfish desires to keep oneself happy? I don’t know.
There’s a lot that’s unoriginal about this movie; from it’s archetypal characters (warrior princess), to its pulp sci-fi tropes (gladiator battle against a monster). But it’s all so colorfully executed that you don’t care. This movie is just plain fun; and despite being riddled with cliches, it’s a beautifully realized world with some truly unique and novel details.
John Carter is the kind of movie that doesn’t feel the need to get bogged down by explanations. How does the amulet that brought Carter to Mars work? Who cares. It just does. Don’t get me wrong; I’m pro-science in real life, but I don’t need a movie to be a lecture. There is realism in uncertainty. No one has absolute knowledge of everything; so to force that knowledge upon us is artifice.
It’s like horror movies that try to explain why their monster is a monster (the remake of Halloween comes to mind). In doing so, they weaken him; they humanize him. We can think with emotions, or our brains, but seldom the two at the same time (at least not with the same intensity). So, we can either understand the science in John Carter, or we can revel in the wonder of it all.