lot of movies end up being average, and let’s get that much out of the way
early: “John Carter” averages out to be a fairly solid movie experience.
However, it achieves this not by merely being unremarkable; some films end up
being average for that reason, as they scrape by or flatline into mediocrity.
“John Carter,” however, sometimes is rather remarkable, and it certainly has a
pulse that keeps it breathing even when the density of its mythology threatens
to suffocate it.
Director Andrew Stanton and company certainly have their work cut out for them
when it comes to adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel for the screen;
originally unfolding in serial form, “Princess of Mars” is condensed here into
about 130 minutes of varying quality. We dive right in with some backstory that
briefly introduces Mars (or “Barsoom” in Burroughs’s mythology) before entering
the film’s frame story, which finds Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara) discovering
that his uncle John Cater (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate solider, has
unexpectedly passed away and left him in possession of his journal that details
his adventures on the planet Mars.
Cutting into this world sometimes proves to be a bit arduous, at least from a
narrative standpoint; there are magic amulets, barbaric Tharks, warring humanoid
tribes, a shady cabal of interlopers, and, of course, a princess (Lynn Collins)
whose city is under siege by a villain concocting a doomsday device out of
lasers. The film winds and wends between all of these threads that often require
some untangling via lengthy exposition dumps that are necessary just to keep the
audience’s heads above water. What is sometimes a sweeping, pulp epic often
grinds to a halt in light of this, and the film never quite shakes off its
uneven pacing. It’s almost appropriate that John Carter spends a lot of time in
shackles since the film itself often mirrors its hero’s fate of being constantly
reigned in before he can really get going.
Still, when “John Carter” soars, boy, does it soar in every sense of the word;
when its title character flies, so too does the film. The sense of wonder and
discovery when Carter encounters Mars is palatable, and the sheer force of
Stanton’s world-building almost transcends the film’s other flaws. I perhaps
would like to have seen Mars be a bit more atmospheric and otherworldly rather
than the arid, Earthy landscape presented here--my mind goes back to the
ethereal, Cinemagic touch of films like “The Angry Red Planet”--but, otherwise,
the universe clicks in terms of design and history. There’s a sense that John
Carter has dropped into a world that’s been lived in before he got there, and
its inhabitants prove to be memorable.
Especially the Tharks; I think we’ve already arrived at the point where we take
CGI characters for granted, and “John Carter” is a reminder of this; one of the
(many) subplots involves Carter’s relationship with Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe)
and his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton), and there’s a weightiness to it that
almost goes unnoticed. What we see of it works, but it’s one of the many
undercooked elements of the film’s ambitious scale; one almost feels like we
could have had an entire film centered on Carter living among and gaining the
respect of the Tharks. When we double back to this territory late in the film,
it almost feels like a detour that again halts the real momentum.
A more Thark-centered film, however, would have robbed us of this film’s biggest
revelation: Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris. With a ferocity that’s only
matched by her stunning beauty, Thoris steals the film from under its title
character, which maybe isn’t that much of a surprise considering the title of
the source novel. She does this almost immediately, when Carter mistakenly
assumes he’s there to protect her when it’s really the other way around. This
moment leads to the princess’s refrain that Carter “get behind” her, which is
something Collins might as well have told Kitsch himself. There’s a stable
maturity to Collins that nicely buttresses against Kitsch’s pretty boy demeanor,
and she’s so good that Kitsch feeds from her. He’s hardly the most charismatic
lead (and one wonders how much this film would fare if he were), but he’s not
deathly vacuous when matched up with Collins.
If there’s another star, it’s actually Stanton himself, who makes the leap to
live-action directing, at least in terms of big, expansive action sequences.
Whereas a lot of contemporary action is chaotically rendered and squeezed into
tight spaces, the action here is grand in scope and precisely blocked. I find it
interesting that Stanton and another longtime animation director, Brad Bird,
have shown such a clear understanding of relating action coherently in their
live action debuts; so many directors treat this stuff as a matter of fact, as a
way of diverting our attention and perhaps shuttling us from one plot point to
the next, but these two see the immersive qualities in huge spectacle.
I’d recommend seeing “John Carter” on the biggest screen possible just to drink
in the way the title character often weaves through his battles. A sequence that
sees him wade through a horde of Tharks is particularly magnificent; intercut
with Carter’s memories of his tragic, Earthbound past, it’s a triumph in both
pure action chops and poetically advancing the story. The moment wells with
emotion, fuelled by Michael Giacchino’s sweeping score, and each hack of
Carter’s blade carries a sort of anguished resonance that’s otherwise missing
from the character for much of the film.
Ultimately, one wishes for more moments like that one--there is a lot to like
about “John Carter,” from its strong-willed female lead to its spectacular
set-pieces; however, it’s sometimes difficult to get around the labored plot
mechanics and herky-jerky pacing. The sheer pulpiness of it does manage to shine
through often enough; it’s interesting to see this material finally brought to
the big screen after its DNA has been pilfered for decades by the likes of "Star
Wars." There’s an easy and obvious comparison to be made between this film and
that franchise’s prequels, as the shared genetic makeup of each extends to their
flaws--both prevent fascinating, enveloping worlds that are sometimes burdened
by poor storytelling.
With a reported $250 million budget, it’s probably more average than it has any
business being, but it’s still admirable in many respects. Sometimes, films
simply misfire, but at least “John Carter” aims high, and, when it actually hits
its mark, it recalls old-fashioned, swashbuckling, high fantasy adventure. It’ll
probably go down as one of Disney’s biggest follies, which is a shame because
I’d revisit this universe if a sequel were released tomorrow.