[8 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The foundation of most modern sci-fi is pulp. It was spoon-fed to readers in cheap, penny comics and paraded across the silver screen in Depression era serials. While actual authors were contemplating the meaning of the Universe, directors were decrying the rise of the Moon Men and the terror of a foolish future replete with robots and jet pack travel. Of course, as time passed, the serious overcame the specious, creating a combination of thought provoking prose and shoot ‘em up ideals. The remnants of that battle can be seen all over the Disney ‘dud’ John Carter. While considered a flop by many in the industry, this is actually a very well done piece of speculative schlock. The characters and concepts come right out of a cheap dime store novel (written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, of course). The technique, however, is pure post modern moviemaking flare.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a decorated Civil War hero who is captured by an Army Colonel (Bryan Cranston) who wants his help fighting the Apaches. When our lead escapes, he ends up in a cave containing a mysterious being known as a Thern. By killing him, Carter is swept up to Barsoom (the native’s name for Mars). There, he is caught in a horrible conflict between several divergent entities. The cities of Helium and Zondanga have been at each others’ throats for eons, while the Martian inhabitants have been marginalized and mistreated. Because he is from Earth, Carter can jump great distances. It’s a power that comes in handy when Sab Than (Dominic West), leader of the Zondanga, offers a cease fire and proposes to Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Of course, it is a trap, a plot to lull the opposition into a false sense of security so that the evil ruler can wipe out his enemies once and for all.
There are many problems with John Carter...and none of them are on the screen. This is a savvy, sophisticated, thinking man’s thriller gussied up in fascinating F/X and a real honest to goodness yarn. We aren’t talking complexity here. Our hero is a man out of time stuck fighting for a cause he can’t commit to, working within a feud founded in the age old angles of power and place. Sure, there are undercurrents of racism and genocide, notions of humanity (or perhaps, humanoid) being out of touch with the needs of the indigenous populace. But for the most part, this is just royalty acting ridiculous, each trying to best the other while stepping over the little (green) people along the way. As a lead, Carter is capable and the creative element behind the scenes never lets him down. However, factors outside the film itself guaranteed its downfall, if not its outright dismissal.
For one thing, there was too much pressure placed on Pixar alum Andrew Stanton. By walking away with Oscars (six nominations and two wins) and working on some of the studio’s preeminent releases (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E) he established a set of credentials that no one could fully live up to. While his prowess is more than evident on the screen - there is real vision at work here - his reputation ruined the film’s chances. Audiences just expected too much from his first live action effort, a desire for some level of masterpiece when all Stanton was obligated to offer was entertainment. Expectations were sky high. John Carter delivered something a bit closer to Earth.
Then there is the whole serious vs. Star Wars concept of science fiction. For decades, the movies have made a concerted effort to put thought and intelligence behind its outsized otherworldly ideas. Of course, the drive-ins were inundated with silly low budget drek, but when the artform wanted to think big and important, it could deliver (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green) and deliver well (2001). Then George Lucas came along and brainwashed the populace into believing than any and all genre efforts should consist of other categories reconfigured. Westerns, Asian martial arts movies, even old WWII titles were thrown into the mix, taking their formula specifics and altering the core conceits forever.
As a result, viewers expect everything to be like Luke Skywalker’s adventures in a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. They want dogfights and light saber ballets, not standard maneuvers and political infighting. While John Carter does offer some spectacular stunt work, it also wallows in the excesses of exposition. We need as much background and history as possible to find a reason to care. Since Stanton is an excellent storyteller, he gets away with such depth. Because audiences have shorter and shorter attentions spans, his lack of legitimate spoon feeding means that many come away unhappy - and when word of mouth is as important as it was to the success (or failure) of this film, unease and confusion doesn’t do much good.
Instead, John Carter is unfairly lumped into a legend of legitimately bad films. Sure, many bombs have their defenders, but few are as fascinating as this. The behind the scenes material on the Blu-ray suggest the level of detail and dedication here. There is real scope and strong splash here. But it is also easy to see how the easily distracted and the unnecessarily kneejerk could react negatively to what Stanton wants. He is trying to bring back a more classical style, a return to the days when amusement was derived as much from ideas as it was from edge of your seat action. He doesn’t skimp on the awe, he just offers it in a way foreign to most post-millennial fans.
As a result, a perfectly good movie is now made out to be some sort of Ed Wood by way of Michael Bay clone. It’s Cutthroat Island meets and angry interstellar Waterworld. The truth, however, is far more intricate. John Carter delivers in every way a film should. It has good ideas, nice pacing, flash and panache, and a story just aching for further exploration. This is, perhaps why, it is now being marginalized. We live in a fast food world with instant gratification and an immediate explanation for the lack thereof as solid social mandates. Decades ago, that’s all audiences had. Throughout time, film has found a way to be both pulp and profound. John Carter tries…and mostly succeeds. Sadly, many in the theaters expected more…and thought otherwise.