Pulpy Thrills and First-Rate Eye-Poppery: ‘John Carter’

[19 June 2012]

By Jeremiah Massengale

I’ll go ahead and say it, Disney’s John Carter didn’t deserve to bomb at the box office. Ironically, when it came to attracting a sizeable audience, the big-budget movie about a hero who could leap so very high landed with an abysmal thud.

Much as already been written elsewhere about the series of poor marketing decisions that only hurt the movie’s appeal. There was the senseless removal of the words “of Mars” from the flick’s original title, leaving it sounding especially plain and nonspecific. There was the first lousy trailer that made the hero seem especially bland and that left the action largely absent. There was no mention that the film’s director is an Academy Award winner behind two of the most entertaining films from the past decade, Finding Nemo and the inventive WALL-E.

Further, no effort was made to mention that the movie is an adaption of a 100-year-old pulp classic that came from Edgar R. Burroughs, the author of the much beloved Tarzan. Even the glimpses of the setting shown on television commercials made it seem all too reminiscent of other failed, disregarded blockbusters like Cowboys & Aliens and Disney’s own Prince of Persia.

Indeed, they botched the title and most of the related marketing. Surprisingly, the movie itself is better than you’d presume. John Carter is imaginative, fun, action-packed and a visual delight, even though it’s also bloated and imbalanced.

Directed by Pixar wizard Andrew Stanton in his first live-action film, the movie is an adaptation of the cult classic adventure story The Princess of Mars. The tale was actually the first work by Burroughs ever published, first serialized in 1912 and issued as a novel five years later. After waiting literally a century, fans of the series must have been glad to see a theatrical feature film about John Carter finally get off the ground. However, the multifarious adventure doesn’t have any resounding familiarity with the general public.

In the film, the title character, a Civil War veteran, is inexplicably transported to the planet Barsoom (Mars) and finds himself in the middle of another civil war between two sets of humanoid Martians, the Heliumites and the Zodangans. John Carter, played by a stoic Taylor Kitsch, becomes a reluctant hero fighting alongside a lovely warrior princess, Dejah Thoris, (Lynn Collins) as the survival of Barsoom apparently hangs in the balance. Along the way, Carter is attacked/adopted by an aboriginal clan of ten-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked, green aliens called the Tharks.

To further complicate matters, as appeasement the good faction of inhabitants offers Princess Dejah’s hand in marriage to the opposing Zodangan ruler to end the war. Most puzzling is that while the despicable Sab Than (Dominic West) is leading the overthrow of the virtuous city of Helium, he’s really directed by a Sith-like race of demi-gods called Therns, namely an especially wicked one named Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Thankfully, on Barsoom, due to lesser gravity, John Carter is endowed with superhuman jumping ability, enhanced strength, and the ability to go shirtless as much as possible, all of which help him fight the good fight for the people of Barsoom.

Sound puzzling? It sure is. You’ll be as confused as Carter when he arrives on Mars early on in the film but oddly enough, you never remotely catch up to his level of understanding. There are villains wearing red armor and good guys with blue armor and the horde of green aliens and colossal white “apes” and mysterious gadgets and some important source of power called the Ninth Ray. Carter, the former Confederate Army captain and widower from Virginia, fits in too well too fast and easily grasps what’s goin’ on.

You’ll envy him.

It appears the complexity of the source material did not lend itself well to a saga you can sufficiently comprehend. There’s too much to keep track of. Should you take notes, you might enjoy it more, but no one should have to do that during a Disney blockbuster. So, it’s not especially predictable, but only because it’s especially perplexing when it shouldn’t be.

The film seems derivative when it’s technically the opposite, in the same way that the dreadful Fantastic Four films, seemed to borrow a great deal from The Incredibles when the source material appeared many decades earlier. There’s little here that hasn’t been seen before, (hovercrafts, open-air speeder bikes, arena battles with strange behemoths, warrior princesses, a hero leaping tall buildings in a single bound, star-crossed lovers literally from separate worlds) which is sort of the point. The majority of the appealing elements from the Star Wars series can easily be seen in John Carter, so much so that the film could have easily been called “John Carter of Tattooine”.

It’s essentially an adaptation of the material that so influenced Superman, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Indiana Jones and Avatar, among countless others. If Stanton’s film seems so much like other science fiction that you’ve enjoyed throughout the years, it’s because the influential source material long predates them. In order for Star Wars, Superman or Avatar to happen, Burroughs’ John Carter stories had to happen first.

Correspondingly, with John Carter Stanton takes on an impossible challenge: Take familiar elements that have inspired some of the greatest science-fiction storytellers and make them seem entirely fresh on screen. Kudos to him for championing such an undertaking.

It’s full of strong archetypes and robust imagery. Elements we now find deeply engrained into the very fabric of fantasy and sci-fi were present and wildly innovative in Burroughs’s original tales. Indeed, it’s convoluted, but the motion picture wouldn’t be worthwhile any other way.

Stanton, who acknowledges his love for Burroughs’ stories throughout the bonus materials included in this set, brings detail and devotion, but lets the movie become weighed down by the exposition and the layers of Burroughs’ imaginative mythos.  Still, too much ambition is all too rare in this sort of genre. The result is a spirited, yet dense and genuinely epic adventure.

There is more charm than you’d expect in John Carter, given the tongue-lashings it received for being such a failure at the box office. It’s full of pulpy thrills and first-rate eye-poppery. Bouncing on Mars sounds and even looks a little silly, but as Carter takes his extraordinary first leaps on Mars, Stanton delivers a memorable moment more akin to Clark Kent first learning to take flight in Richard Donner’s Superman and less like the goofy hopping see in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

The action scenes, like the gladiatorial face-off between Carter and some monstrous creatures, deliver thrills, as blue Martian blood satisfyingly flies everywhere. Indeed, given the enormous budget and Stanton’s background, the CG doesn’t suffer and the creatures and backgrounds are believable and textured. If only the same could be said for all of the dialogue and plot development.

In spite of some cheesy lines, Collins makes a terrific heroine that’s equal parts alluring and mighty. She’s at her best when she attempts to channel Xena, which she does often. Willem Dafoe gives a vibrant, commanding performance via motion-capture as Thark named Tars Tarkus. Yet Kitsch, while terrific on Friday Night Lights, doesn’t do the title hero any favors with his passive delivery and limited range in the leading role, for he is not convincing on either planet. And with his shirt off almost the entire time, viewers can’t help but struggle to take his plight seriously.

Even though it’s fun to see him jump like he’s never jumped before, the stakes rarely seem as high as they’re supposed to be.  You probably couldn’t count how many near-death scenarios Carter experiences nor could you correctly estimate how many times he attempts a daring escape. Yet, there’s no rooting interest in the material.  No character is charismatic enough to be iconic.

Carter never feels half as alive and identifiable as Luke Skywalker and company. Unfortunately, very little happens that actually endears viewers to the characters. There’s still a worthwhile adventure; I just wish I cared about the heroes or the stakes more.

It’s left unclear what makes the Zodangans so vile.  Shang, Carter’s true arch nemesis is also vaguely developed. The Therns, appear to be a mix of nefarious Jedi and the bald Observers on Fringe, but there’s too much mystery involved for the menace to feel weighty.

The pacing is jagged. The original stories were written originally in an episodic nature and the film suffers from adapting this format that’s not a traditional three-act structure. What might have been a key fight scene with one of the Tharks takes only a fleeting split-second while meaningless trips across landscapes and lengthy conversations drag on.

Blindly brief flashbacks are shown of Carter’s wife and child, but that backstory, though tragic and fleeing, seems as riveting as anything shown from his interplanetary adventures. What’s most unexpected is that Stanton, one of Pixar’s geniuses, made a film that lacks comedy and heart. At least there’s a surprisingly delightful dog-like alien sidekick called Woola that has plenty of both. Woola, who cannot speak but can run at lightning speed, somehow has more personality and likeability than everyone else on screen combined.

What helps the overall feel of the production is Michael Giacchino’s score. Giacchino is the best film composer working today and his resounding work here, while not his best, continues his excellence.

Stanton is a wonderful storyteller but I’m left wondering if his vision for the flick was fully realized. In spite of all this, by the end of the swashbuckling exploits, even the originally flummoxing storyline does pay off. It succeeds for its pure entertainment value. Plus, “Take up a cause, fall in love, write a book,” is an admirable theme, if you’re looking desperately for one. The adventure brings out the kid in you, but the kid in you will certainly like it much more than the grown-up ever will.

John Carter gets some things right and with plenty of gusto. Overall, the sprawling nature of the film gets the better of it. Yet, John Carter is a grand, upbeat adventure that Stanton and his fellow screenwriters (Pixar’s Mark Andrews and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon) approached with reverence. The pioneering work of science fiction obviously arrived on screen decades too late to be a pioneering film. Early on, pre-Barsoom, a character tells Carter, “I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the man on this piece of paper with the one I’m looking at,” which is ultimately true for the film itself.

However, it’s interesting to watch John Carter as Stanton’s epic fan letter to the original blueprint for a science fiction classic. It works as a fitting tribute to the essentials of sci-fi and fantasy. The film is actually better upon a second viewing, but given the amount of negative hoopla that’s surrounded it, unfortunately viewers may never even take that first journey to Barsoom. If they do, they’ll find out that it’s at least a few leaps and bounds (pun intended, as usual) better than they might have guessed.

The extras for the Blu-ray are substantial but with varying quality. Included is a “Disney Second Screen” feature that syncs a computer app to the movie and walks you through the trove of John Carter’s journal. The Second Screen concept is worthwhile and inventive enough to never catch on; plus most of the material, aside from sketches and production shots, is available elsewhere.

The half-hour long “360 Degrees of John Carter” walks the audience through every aspect of the filmmaking process during day 52 of production. Not only do you see William Dafoe on stilts doing motion capture and Stanton making micro-judgments but you also go behind the scenes with every department as they do they work: hair, makeup, costuming, the stunt crew, and even catering; it’s stimulating but never worth rewatching.

The best bonus feature is “100 Years in the Making”, which focuses on Burroughs’ earliest forays into fiction writing and chronicles several failed attempts to adapt John Carter’s escapades for the screen. Jon Favreau, Michael Chabon, Neil deGrasse Tyson, appear among the diverse, talented talking heads to recount the saga’s impact and relevance to us in present day. The failure with “100 Years” is the brevity; the summary of a century of pop culture history is over in ten minutes. That’s right—just ten minutes! This featurette should have been longer, because it skims the surface on what seems to be some really insightful, fascinating material.
Also, included in the extras is a pointless, unfunny blooper reel.

There’s a series of deleted scenes, most of which would have improved the film. Stanton guides you through each of them, including the original opening scene featuring narration from the princess of Mars, which is superior to the actual opening.

There’s also the expected director’s commentary on the disc. Stanton, especially likeable in commentary mode, is joined by producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, and their conversation about John Carter is informative, pleasant, and enthusiastic. However, they don’t rant about the marketing failures or the film’s polarizing reception. So, they don’t dish gritty details like you might hope.

Even so, at least the dialogue of the movie actually includes the line, “Yep. John Carter of Mars sounds much better.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/159986-a-bounding-uneven-adventure-john-carter/