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The actor Taylor Kitsch as John Carter.
The actor Taylor Kitsch as John Carter.

The movie John Carter arrives to mixed reviews

Could Disney's new live-action sci-fi epic John Carter be this decade's Waterworld, costing millions of dollars and unlikely to recoup them?

With another blockbuster season dominated by superhero sequels and action franchise outings about to hit, the film community's customary claim that Hollywood has forgotten how to take risks might seem truer than ever. But a major release this week, which challenges that very notion, has somehow found itself struggling against the same masses that many would expect to champion it.

Disney's live-action sci-fi epic John Carter isn't part of an existing franchise yet, although there's enough material in the century-old book series by the Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs for several movies. It's the story of a weary American Civil War veteran (played here by the Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch) who is transported to the planet Mars, which is populated by various warring races. Thanks to the planet's comparatively weak gravity, Carter discovers he is capable of leaping superhuman distances, making him an asset in the planet's war against evil. If all this sounds a little familiar, it's because the character formed part of the basis for Superman.

In the century since its creation, everyone from Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) has expressed interest in adapting Burroughs's series, with Tom Cruise once linked to the lead role. George Lucas has even claimed that without John Carter of Mars, there would be no Star Wars.

But although influential, the character is not widely known today, making the studio's decision to lavish an estimated US$250 million (Dh918m) on the picture an astronomical gamble. It has also been reported that the film, which boasts no out-of-this-world stars, will need to reap around $700m to be considered for a sequel. Even the choice of director is a risky bet. Andrew Stanton may have two Academy Award-winning films under his belt (Pixar favourites Finding Nemo and WALL-E), but this is his first attempt at live-action filmmaking.

Most worrying for Disney, in the weeks leading up to John Carter's release, the blogosphere has been abuzz with reports that the movie earned disappointingly low tracking numbers (used to measures audience interest and predict eventual grosses). The studio also caused concern among fans by dropping "of Mars" from the picture's original title, apparently after its 2011 movie Mars Needs Moms became the year's biggest box-office failure. All this has led to speculation that John Carter could become this decade's answer to Kevin Costner's infamous 1995 flop Waterworld, a film that was largely cursed by negative publicity before its actual release.

But there is one question that the rampant speculation has largely failed to ask: is it any good?

Executives at Disney may be sleeping a little easier this week after a number of early reviews deemed John Carter worthy of praise. As well as succeeding as an action-packed thrill ride with eye-popping visual effects, many have remarked that the film is faithful to Burroughs' original story, without being confined by it.

"The plot isn't War and Peace, but there's a refreshing attempt to produce something with an actual story, interesting characters, true heart and more depth than your average blockbuster," wrote Dave Golder of SFX. "All in all, this is one trip to Mars you won't regret."

The praise hasn't been unanimous, however. Cinema Blend's Sean O'Connell remarked that "the film's lengthy, rocky journey through preproduction probably is more engaging than Stanton's finished product".

While the movie's better-than-expected reviews could provide it with something of a box-office boost, many expect that critical acclaim will not be enough to guarantee the character's return to the screen.

Though this may disappoint some, perhaps it would make more sense if this rare studio gamble became an eccentric one-off, rather than a multiplex mainstay for years to come?


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