JOHN CARTER: Of Mars

John Carter (2012) – Directed by Andrew Stanton – Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Willem Dafoe, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Haden Church, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau, and Art Malik.

It will be years before we have a true assessment of JOHN CARTER. Right now, in the final throes of its theatrical run, the film is caught between the media doomsayers who were quick to decry Disney’s $250 million production an epic bomb and a branch of sci-fi fandom who’ve rushed to counter the media’s negative over-reaction with an equally strong positive push, heralding JOHN CARTER as some kind of all-time epic that people are missing because Disney’s marketing arm created a bad marketing campaign and delivered limp trailers.

I’m not here to think for anyone when it comes to their enjoyment of this movie. The whole world is free to love JOHN CARTER or hate JOHN CARTER. I am here simply to tell you what I think of the film, which is this:

I’m rather confounded about the reaction of both camps: JOHN CARTER is certainly a disappointment in terms of its American box office performance, but when one takes the international haul into account the film has already made back its $250 million budget. You can be a disappointment with that kind of net (studios make films to make lots of money, not barely make back their production costs), but you really can’t ask, as Entertainment Weekly did, “How big of a box office bomb is JOHN CARTER?” unless you’ve either got some kind of ax to grind or are committed to a false narrative.

For those who have insisted to me that this film is a wondrous cinematic achievement, I’m at a loss, as well. JOHN CARTER is a good film that at times is a very good film but at others is a beautiful looking mess. Director Andrew Stanton is helming a live action movie for the first time and while he gets all the shots he needs, his storytelling abilities that served him so well in WALL-E and Finding Nemo have abandoned him here. (Stanton also reportedly had much to do with the marketing campaign, so if you’re inclined to praise his film you should be willing to dog his marketing sensibilities.)

Watching JOHN CARTER is a bit like listening to a band of talented musicians play a familiar song for the first time together – it’s a little rough at the start but once they feel each other out, it comes together for a strong finish. I have to admit, though, that as enjoyable as the John Carter/Deja Thoris (Taylor Kitsch/Lynn Collins) relationship is to watch, as good as the action sequences are, as much humor as there is in the film, and as truly wondrous a creation as Woola is, JOHN CARTER is too often akin to the film’s white apes: a large, lumbering, loud beast without a proper sense of refinement.

In both WALL-E and Finding Nemo, Stanton kept his story focused on a one-on-one relationship and let the adventure build around that relationship and let his plot push forward because of that relationship. Such is not the case in JOHN CARTER. Stanton attempts no less than 4 of these one-on-one partnerships: John and Tars Tarkas (Willen Dafoe), John and Sola (Samantha Morton), John and Woola, and John and Deja. This is a heck of a lot of one-on-one bonding for a guy who insists throughout the over-long opening sequence that he just wants to be left alone.

JOHN CARTER’s biggest failure is that it spends too much time with the pre-Mars sequence. Admittedly, this time spent is rewarded at the end of the film, as CARTER uses John’s death in 1881 as a highly effective framing device, but as a result of spending so much time in the present, three of the relationships in the center of the film (with Tars Tarkas, Sola, and Woola) suffer from under-development.

The movie opens in 1881. Edgar “Ned” Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is called to his Uncle John’s funeral at his estate in Richmond. John Carter was a very rich man and died suddenly and Edgar gets everything and there’s a journal and we flash back to John’s adventures in the west looking for gold and dear lord would you please get to freaking Mars already!

It goes on and on and on, and it’s not bad but it’s not going anywhere, either. We get a funny bit when John has been captured by Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and John continually tries to escape, but it doesn’t go anywhere significant. I get that it’s establishing that John is a man who’s not interested in fighting anymore, which makes his decision to help Deja a bigger deal, but really, the only part of John’s pre-Mars life that we absolutely need to see is covered during flashbacks on Barsoom when we see his dead wife and child. Everything else is just eating up time I’d rather Stanton had spent on Mars, establishing and building relationship with Tars Tarkas, Sola, and Woola.

Instead, all three of these relationships are rushed and under-developed. The movie provides little evidence of Tars Tarkas and John bonding. We’re just starting to get to know them when the armies of Helium and Zodanga show up and John goes bounding off to save/impress Deja, which is almost immediately followed by Tars helping John, Sola, and Deja escape out the back of his tent to save them from Tars Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). The whole sequence with the Tharks feels like a series of greatest hits instead of a developed story; it’s like we’re getting all the emotional beats without getting any of the emotional foundation that makes those emotional beats resonate.

For instance, there’s no proper build-up of Sola and John bonding, and no proper introduction of Woola.

It’s a shame because Woola is simply awesome. A kind of big Martian dog, Woola is super fast and super loyal to John but he just appears out of nowhere and he’s continually used as an afterthought or side bit instead of having a real relationship develop.

Once John, Sola, Deja, and Woola hit the road, however, things start to come together, driven by the Therns. The Therns are bald guys in robes who can change shape and manipulate life on Mars. They’ve christened Sab Than (Dominic West) as the man to lead Barsoom into a new era, and Sab Than is determined to marry Deja in order to unite Barsoom’s two main cities. The Thern leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is always around Sab, and with Sab we finally get a villain in the film that gives John’s stories – his quest to get home and his desire for Deja – some real weight to it.

John saves the day in a big fight scene that breaks up Sab and Deja’s wedding, but Shang gets the last word as he banishes John back to Earth after John has foolishly discarded his special interplanetary teleportation medallion. John’s exile leads to the best part of the film, as we see, in flashback, John’s 10-year search for another medallion on Earth, which leads to him using his faked death to get a Thern to show up so he can kill him and steal the Thern’s medallion in order to go back to Barsoom.

JOHN CARTER keeps getting better and that’s a commendable accomplishment, but the pacing and emphasis in the first half really cripples the film for me. The acting here is solid but completely interchangeable; Kitsch, Collins, Strong, West, and James Purefoy are all good but with the exception of Collins you could pull them out and drop any other actor in their range into this role and it wouldn’t change anything. That’s not to say they aren’t good, but I didn’t find any of them to be all that memorable.

What is evident throughout the film, however, is that every single frame of JOHN CARTER feels lovingly put together by Stanton and the actors, and that makes me root for the film. Kitsch is very limited as an actor, but you can see him giving everything in his performance and when Collins speaks of Barsoom I feel like she’s talking about a very real place. I want JOHN CARTER to be a magnificent and epic achievement, but it just never advances to that level. For all of the problems in the first half, it does become a highly enjoyable film in its final half, even if it does cram too much stuff into too small a space. Where the first half of the film takes forever to get going, the back half needs a few more narrative pauses. Maybe there’s a 3 or 4 hour cut of this film that we’ll get to see someday that will give everything its proper time and space and the relationships between John and the various Tharks will develop a bit more organically.

As I mentioned, I’m not here to question your love of JOHN CARTER, but I wonder if some of the fierce defense of this film comes from the love most of us have for Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. Those of us who like comic books and sci-fi and fantasy have seen our loves rule the box office over the last decade and it stings a bit to see JOHN CARTER called out for being derivative of other films when we know those stories are derivative of Burroughs’ fiction. For me, JOHN CARTER is an uneven film that becomes enjoyable only after John, Deja, Sola, and Woola hit the road together and after Shang kidnaps John and the deep back story of the Therns is revealed. From then on, JOHN CARTER is a really good movie about a guy coming into his own and finding a reason to live after the death of his wife. “No longer John Carter of Earth,” he tells us in narration, “but John Carter of Mars.”

Good ending. Unfortunately, it just takes too darn long to get there for me and while I want to love it, I can’t do more than like it.

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2 thoughts on “JOHN CARTER: Of Mars

  1. I have to say I agree with most of your points and did read the doom of the film before watching it, which coloured my expectations, but surprisingly to me after I watched it… I wanted to watch it again and did so and enjoyed it again; this doesn’t happen to me with many films: Blade Runner, 2001, Avatar, Sholin Soccer, Chronicles of Riddick, Flatland and one or 2 others where the enjoyment continues on.
    So for all it’s faults (and it has many – not least, why if they had a dog that fast [Woola] did not someone breed an attack version and take over the planet?) it’s fun to watch!
    Regards
    Harry

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