John Carter (2012)
John Carter has been in the longest development hell of any movie project in the history of cinema. If nothing else, that’s at least an accomplishment. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs first published his tale of interplanetary adventure in “A Princess of Mars” way back in 1912. It was his first published work, even before the phenomenon that would make him a star, Tarzan. Ever since 1931, filmmakers have been trying to realize Burroughs’ grandiose sci-fi vision but have never been able to finish. In the last decade, the movie has gone through different stages of development, with Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Jon Favreau attached as director at different points. Then Disney snatched up the rights and hired one of its own, Pixar director Andrew Stanton, to do what nobody has been able to do for 80 years –bring Burroughs’ vision to the big screen. It doesn’t hurt when Disney gives you a reported $250 million to spend.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran haunted by his past. He’s chased by a group of bandits and stumbles into a cave that transports him to Mars, known as Barsoom to the natives. Carter discovers that he’s found himself in the middle of another civil war, this time between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. The Tharks are a race of 10-foot tall four-armed warrior creatures, and their leader, Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), sees Carter as the turning point in getting his people’s lands back. Carter will also help solidify Tars Tarkus’ place as leader to his people. John Carter is a coveted free agent on the red planet. Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) wants John to help her people survive against the Zodangans, lead by Sab Than (Dominic West). Dejah’s father (Cirian Hinds) has brokered a shaky peace on the promise that she and Sab Than will marry. The mysterious Therns, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), are the real power players on Mars. They have offered a powerful new weapon known as the “ninth ray” to give Sab Than the upper hand. All John really wants to do is return home, but first he has to find a way back.
John Carter is an amusing, entertaining throwback to old-fashioned B-movies. Even the depiction of life on Mars is charmingly retro, what a future would look like to a man from the early twentieth century perspective. As a result, the aliens fight with Bronze era weapons and guns that behave like trinkets from a Western. Even the minimalist alien design, the Roman-esque costumes, the fact that everyone can breathe air, and low-grade technology of these advanced species (flying machines that look like Da Vinci designed them) come across as nostalgic, vestiges of the past more so than insights into the future. It’s like watching those old sci-fi TV shows from the 1950s and how they predicted man would have colonized the solar system by now and already have a working lunar colony (Newt Gingrich is trying his best). The movie channels the spirit of old adventure serials and captures a certain gee-whiz, childlike sense of fun. There are moments where Stanton has a playful sense of storytelling, like a near montage of Carter’s determined escapes from officer Powell (Bryan Cranston? Why not?). While being PG-13, there is still a feeling of the Disney-fication of the tale, complete with tamer outfits for Dejah Thoris (do a Google image search) and an adorable alien “dog” sidekick that befriends John.
The best moments are easily the scenes where John integrates into the indigenous Thark tribes, finding a sense of community and a bonding with Tars Tarkas. If the movie had only featured this alien race instead of all those warring people-who-have-red-henna-tattoos-on-so-they-must-be-aliens-right, I think the movie would have succeeded better. One alien race focuses the narrative but instead we get four (three?). When our climax does come into view, the pieces have all fallen into place and the action is suitably thrilling. Stanton’s live-action debut isn’t the homerun that Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible 4 was, but the large-scale action is satisfying and imaginative enough. The payoffs work and Stanton has nicely intertwined his storylines so that everything comes to a head. The Earthbound framing device, with Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading the diary of his rich departed Uncle John, enriches the narrative once the full context is revealed, gearing up the audience for a long-awaited reunion to end the movie on a perfect high note.
What John Carter also has going against it is the pull of time. It’s hard not to see how derivative the story and characters are; Burroughs’ original novels were hugely influential to science fiction writers, and you can see similarities in Star Wars, Avatar, and other works. Scenes in this movie will feel like rip-offs from other movies, like an arena battle with giant alien hordes from Attack of the Clones, riling up a native alien species against its imperial antagonists in Avatar, Deja Thoris clearly has her DNA all over Princess Leia, and the dynamics of jumping through space travel via gateways made me think of how excellent a movie Stargate was (watch it again; it’s terrifically executed). Carter can easily be credited as the predecessor to superheroes. Now it’s unfair to say that John Carter rips off these other sci-fi movies when every one of them was released long after Burroughs’s novels had been widely published. It’s unfair, but you can’t help but feel the way you feel, and I was feeling a fairly resounding sense that I had seen much of this tale before and better. The actual terrain of Mars is a little less than inspiring. Its rocky vistas don’t make it feel too noticeably alien. We don’t ever really get a good view of alien culture outside of the Tharks. John Carter’s one big addition is that the character, given his physiological makeup and Mars’ gravity, can leap to impressive heights that were only previously known by Italian plumbers in video games. This means we get a lot of John Carter jumping up, jumping around, jumping like a Martian jumping bean. But just because you can jump really high, doesn’t that mean you’d be plummeting at a high rate of force? Wouldn’t John seriously break his legs leaping 500 feet in the air and then landing?
The script, credited to Stanton, Mark Andrews (co-director of Pixar’s upcoming Brave), and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, is weighed down with expositional slog that it cannot break until the third act. I was expecting a better and more graceful story given Stanton’s previous film, WALL-E, which could be taught in film classes as a textbook example of elegant visual storytelling. With John Carter, it feels like we’ve been hit with the Martian phone book. We’re inundated with unfamiliar names and given scant time to adjust. While a gamble that the audience intelligence will catch up, it also makes for a confusing half of a movie. It’s hard to keep track of all the different names; Tharks this, Hellium that, Zodanga this, Jeddak that, Therns here, Barsoom there, etc. The movie doesn’t gradually expand its Martian history, it just plops us, along with Carter, right into the middle. The opening structure is also a bit confusing, as we’re jumping around time without any proper setup. Still, the movie cannot be accused of being stupid; hokey and convoluted, yes, but not stupid.
And boy do we get a lot of talking for an action movie set on Mars. The middle section is quite heavy with yapping. Kids who came thank to their trust of the Disney name will probably be bored as the movie explains to us things we already know and things we don’t care about knowing. For a two-hour plus film that has a lot of political infighting, I’m surprised that the movie is pretty pedestrian when it comes to its politics. It all really comes down to an arranged marriage to broker peace. That’s not very complicated. The main villains, the ghostly Therns, are completely incomprehensible when it comes to motivation. I have no idea what they stood to gain. If they have a gateway that can take them to Earth, or they have their own copies on Earth, why aren’t they using this to their advantage? Why aren’t they grabbing more Earthmen to form an army of jumping Jacks? Why the significance of the “ninth element” when we all know the fifth element is love? But more importantly, as last year’s Green Lantern proved, it hurts your movie when your hero can’t be bothered to be heroic. It takes far too long for John Carter to seem like he gives a damn about anything. I understand he’s a war-weary vet, but the movie feels like 90 minutes of him shrugging while everyone on Mars desperately pleads with him to save them.
Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is going to be having a fairly big breakout year given his mug appearing in several high-profile, high-budgeted movies. The guy has already proven with steady work on TV’s Friday Night Lights that he can act, though the results are not so convincing with John Carter. I think he was going for some sort of gruff, Clint Eastwood-esque loner but he just comes across as wooden. Add his character’s reluctant nature, and it makes for a pretty uninvolving hero. Fortunately for Kitsch (what an unfortunate last name), the supporting cast is there to pick up the slack. Collins (TV’s True Blood) is the real breakout star of the movie. She’s feisty and strong and passionate and altogether easy on the eyes she could give Leia a run for her money in a metal bikini competition. Collins’ performance is filled with urgency, like she’s compensating for our taciturn lead actor. When she’s on screen you feel engaged in the story. Dafoe (Spider-Man) finds the right mixture of humor and pathos as the leader of the Tharks. West (300) has such a slimy sneer to him, it’s magnificent to watch. I’m starting to think that Strong needs to take a break from playing villains (I count eight bad guy roles sine his breakout in 2008’s RocknRolla) except that he’s so good at playing them. I think if Mark Strong ever plays himself in a movie about his own life, he’ll inevitably be the bad guy.
John Carter is an entertaining throwback to the adventure serials of old, a retro sci-fi action film that falters somewhat from a talky, uneven, exposition-laden script. When this movie works, it works quite well. There’s just too much stuff in this movie, too many alien races, too much exposition, and too many other movies that make John Carter feel derivative. What was once amazing and imaginative in 1912 will not have the same effect on audiences in 2012, especially those who have grown up on pop culture inspired by John Carter. I don’t think anyone can say the final product was worth the wait, but John Carter is a modestly fun adventure. I wouldn’t mind taking another trip to Mars, just as long as it doesn’t take 80 years.
Nate’s Grade: B-