John Carter (2012)
March 10, 2012 7 Comments
In the process of mourning the death of his wife and child, the last thing John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) wants is to take sides in somebody else’s war. Caught in the crossfire of the American Civil War, he escapes to a marked cave rumoured to be lined with gold. Instead, Carter is transported to Mars (Barsoom to the natives) where he finds himself held captives by Tharks. Eager at first only to escape and return home, when he breaks free to save a falling woman – who turns out to be Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Princess of Helium – Carter becomes embroiled in a new war, one which looks set to engulf all of Barsoom. As Helium is forced to ally with the relentlessly deceiving city of Zodanga, Carter becomes aware of a race of shadowy puppetmasters (lead by Mark Strong) who could be the key not only to Mars’ problems, but his presence there in the first place.
John Carter (formerly of Mars), a film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-volume Barsoom series, marks the live action feature début of one of Pixar’s finest, Andrew Stanton (formerly of Finding Nemo and Wall.E). Costing somewhere in the region of $250 million, John Carter had the unenviable task of making a profit while following in the footsteps of its own extensive progeny to cinemas, with a number of the books’ themes and ideas having already been assimilated into the likes of Star Wars, Superman and Avatar while Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars lay largely forgotten. Lumbered with an increasingly unfashionable 3D conversion and lacking any real name-recognition, it was always going to be a tough sell.
There’s a part of me that wanted to dislike John Carter. After a spate of increasingly irksome interviews, it was becoming the case that, despite having potentially dreamt up the scene from Finding Nemo in which Dory attempts to speak whale, I had a bit of a problem with Andrew Stanton, and maybe even Pixar in general. With all their talk of an inclusive Dream Team and making only the movies that they would wish to see themselves (even Cars 2, apparently), I couldn’t help but feel that the company was a little too smug, self-congratulatory and – more recently, at least, in terms of Brave – blindly defensive to reconcile with my retiring view of them as infallible masters of children’s animation. You never should meet your heroes, I suppose, however indirectly.
Even excusing the burgeoning grudge of a disgruntled hair-splitter, John Carter is no classic: the film’s bloated plot, uninspired dialogue and wooden characters instantly setting it miles apart from the director’s previous animated works. Despite starring two glorified appliances, robbed of facial expressions and boasting a vocabulary of precisely one word apiece, Wall.E boasts more personality, more chemistry and ultimately more humanity (or even martianity) in its 98 minutes than John Carter‘s entire cast manage in well over two hours. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but given the size of the budget, the identity of the director and the influence of the source material, just about anything should have been possible.
Speaking of the source material, it appears that Stanton has (rightfully or not) taken little creative licence in adapting John Carter for the big screen. Thus, we are thrust into a mind-boggling world originally shaped over the course of eleven volumes and innumerable words with only a brief introduction to soften the blow. As you are left to grapple with the ever-expanding register of tongue-tying names, it quickly become clear why the likes of George Lucas and James Cameron harvested the elements that they did; in-so-doing leaving out the likes of Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga and Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, who, in the end, are only distinguishable by the colour of their flags, which fly above their warring light-powered airships. Or something.
As if the on-Mars action wasn’t brain-scrambling enough, the filmmakers have opted to add to the story with a series of bookends which introduce the sagas’ author as a character in the film’s own narrative – as Carter’s nephew, no less. These sequences add less than zero to proceedings, instead drawing the audience’s out of the primary plot as they are left to grapple with the unnecessarily meta suggestion that Burrough’s was actually writing fact, as though he had just watched Eric Brevig’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and wondered why those Vernians should have all of the fun. This proves even more problematic come the film’s stilted dénouement, which – without giving anything away – oversteps its natural conclusion in favour of what is either fiction’s least enticing cliff hanger or a point so ambiguous that, even in the face of the rest of the film, it seems positively absurd.
Ridiculous as it might sound, however, by no means did I actually hate Disney’s John Carter. Quite the contrary, in fact: I found its utter disregard for the deteriorating attention span of the MTV generation rather refreshing; commendable, even. While the aliens still look improbably humanoid (the ‘red’ humans thoroughly included), it was nice to see a good portion of the movie dedicated to the almighty culture clash that would follow transplantation to Mars. Carter’s adjustments to the decrease in gravity, the hand-acted greetings and initial interaction, and the fact that very little of the Martian science makes any sense whatsoever each placated me after years of diluted science fiction in which characters cross the universe with as little difficulty as one might cross the road.
Without a doubt the biggest success of John Carter is the film’s realisation of the Tharks: a race of primitive, four-armed green Martians who lay eggs, destroy those that haven’t hatched by some arbitrary date, and who maim and kill those who are weak or unruly; they are a complicated and diverse culture that – despite their unique anatomy – prove as emotive and sympathetic as any of the human characters. Across the board, John Carter is breath-takingly shot and jaw-droppingly rendered, its settings and set pieces stunning in much the same way that Avatar once achieved with its comparable race of Na’vi. Even when the creatures are communing with some higher power or pitting their captives against myriad monsters and beasts (the Thark arena bears a striking resemblance to that on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones‘ Geonosis), they easily maintain their awe and splendour.
But perhaps I’m just a sucker for science fiction on an operatic scale. I loved Avatar, and I am routinely blown away by Star Wars (yes, even the prequels), and if you resolutely disagree then we will unlikely see eye to eye here either. I can forgive the wooden performances, the dispassionate air battles and the incomprehensible plot, because what they threaten to undermine so taps in to the childlike sense of wonder that is so key to my own cinematic enjoyment. I had no problem with Carter’s abilities being limited to a particular proclivity for jumping, or the fact that Mark Strong ultimately played a thinly-veiled angel by a different name. I didn’t mind that the names were unintelligible or that I had seen most of it before. I even enjoyed the central relationship, finding it easy enough to invest in Taylor Kitsch’s archetypal lead. I was entertained, and I asked of it nothing more.
Cripplingly overlong, inaccessibly convoluted and written by mahogany, on mahogany, with mahogany, John Carter is a film that will alienate more people than it will inspire. That said, it is also handsomely shot, beautifully rendered and, with a winningly old fashioned feel, this is science fiction writ large in both the best and worst senses. It may take a few viewings to really crack, but whether the general public embraces it or not this will be nevertheless an important release in the genre’s colourful history. I only wish I could give it 3.25 stars.