Watching this just a couple days after Curiosity landed was a little sadly surreal. I’d already set myself up for very low expectations… this was one of the biggest box office busts in history when it was released. I wanted to say things like, “it isn’t a great film, but at least it is over 2 hours long.” However, it wasn’t the train wreck I had expected. Neither was it such a brilliant experience that I will ever need to see again nor need to see a sequel. This is a weak three star film–I’m not angry that I watched it, but my life isn’t any richer for the experience.
To be fair, it could have been much worse. The source material for the movie could have sent this story down a scary, male-dominated, half-naked world without any of the humor (intended or otherwise) that something like Conan managed to provide. As it turns out, they’ve reworked the characters to give us a strong female lead or two (do 4 armed, green-skinned females count?) and enough visual candy to keep us from getting bored or recognize how silly it all is.
There is a truckload of talent driving the film (Hinds, Dafoe, Church, West, Purefoy). Carter even re-pairs Collins and Kitsch, whose ease with each other was evident perhaps due to having worked together as Silverfox and Remy in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As the core relationship, it helped immensely, especially as they traded off bashing in heads.
But the broader story, that of immortal (supposedly) beings playing chess with planets for their own inscrutable reasons, just doesn’t fly 100+ years after the fact. We know too much and read too much. We want more substance … or at least to perceive substance in our science fiction. And there is the rub here. It is neither science fiction nor fantasy. The Barsoom series was written before such definitions existed. The movie tries to make it sf, but it’s armies and people on Mars in flying ships… so that’s fantasy. The movie is out of time with reality in a way that makes it impossible to swallow as more than a weird visual artifact. In many ways, this is where the Chronicles of Riddick went awry, mixing unabashed fantasy and hard sf.
The Carter team could have reworked their story more to put it all underground–at least giving us hope that it might be possible that beings live there. They could have made it more of a steampunk adventure, a la Sherlock Holmes, The Wild Wild West (original flavor), The Adventures of Brisco County Junior, or even The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. Would it have been recognizable as the original? Maybe, or maybe not, but they didn’t even keep the title and rarely is source material respected anyway. They needed to step us away more from today’s reality to be able to have the fun they intended. But starting in the 1880s and asking us to believe in so many patently untrue things, they went too far. You can only ask an audience to accept one really big lie to pin your story together. More than that, and you’ve strained their willingness to go along. It can be done, but it has to be done a damn sight more clever than this script did.
If you can put your head into the mindset of a 12 year old boy or an 8 year old girl for a couple hours, and forget all the science you know, you can disengage and enjoy the story. If you just want to see some truly pretty CG work and some battle scenes, you can enjoy the film. If you are looking for a reasonable representation of the original, you probably can enjoy the story. If you’re looking for a good film… let’s just say it’s in the same league with Cowboys & Aliens, though not nearly as believable, and you can make up your own mind. I know I have.