15 March 2012
Poor John Carter. It never had a chance and for some reason I feel the need to defend it. Perhaps it's the Burroughsian ripe childhood and therefore the deep nostalgia it conjures, or perhaps it is because the movie is, simply, a good fun movie.
Weeks before the film was released, reports of its impending doom eeked through the internet and into trade magazines. In several articles, “tracking” figures were discussed by would-be “sources” with little journalistic regard for contextual backing that would allow layman readers to decipher their claims. Simultaneously to this haranguing the film’s budget and allegedly troubled production history entered into the fight and eerie whispers of the dreaded Ishtar were heard in wind. It should be noted and needs bearing in mind that, at that point, very few, and likely even fewer of those doing the writing on John Carter, had actually seen the film itself.
Why anyone would sharpen their knives for Andrew Stanton, the nerdy, clearly quite imaginative filmmaker who delivered the gems Finding Nemo and Wall*E is beyond me. Wouldn’t it be better to root harder for the end of the Michael Bay era? (the answer is yes...the sooner that man stops making movies that pillage my youth, the better).
The final torch on the pyre of John Carter’s public perception may well have been Brooks Barnes’s New York Times article (unimaginatively titled “Ishtar on Mars”) that ran on the Sunday of the film’s release, before box office numbers had even been reported in full. Barnes, though working without actual figures at his disposal (the article has since been amended with final tallies, though it omits some of the film’s staggering overseas figures in favor of making its case), seems too gleeful in his dismantling of what he views as Stanton and Disney’s colossal folly, which is far less offensive than the his false equivalence between box-office success and aesthetic quality that is laced throughout the article. Barnes's quite useless piece of writing is a perfect example of the tragic byproduct of the industry side of film, which all too easily and often becomes a conversation that should be about art into one of figures, charts, and competition. Who can ever be said to have won art? (I'm working on another post that will expound more to this idea that many of the best films made hardly any money.)
Which brings me to John Carter. In my opinion it is a cleanly told piece of unserious pulp storytelling that wants for little more than to entertain, yet never condescends to resort to the tactics of cheap ingratiation (such as past expiry pop-culture references, underlined catchphrases, fart gags, easy cynicism, racism, homophobia, etc.) that are littered throughout most entertainments of this size (*cough* Michael Bay's Transformers). This alone should qualify John Carter for a medal of some kind. For those that don't know here is the set up: a lumpy amalgam of narrative bits cobbled together from several novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi Barsoom series follows John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate solider panning for gold in Arizona, as he finds himself transported to Mars. Unlike the dead and dry red planet on which today’s space obsessives hope to find evidence of life, Burroughs’s Mars/Barsoom, though indeed dusty and dry, is populated (sparsely) by several warring races. The geopolitics of Barsoom are sketched out in the film’s Willem Dafoe–voiced prologue, but the film deftly jumps from airships battling over the fate of Mars to a rainy U.S. street circa 1881 and the death of our just-met hero, before flashing back a decade earlier to Arizona via a tale in a leather-bound journal (the spark of many a great adventure fiction) John bequeathed to his nephew. It’s a fairly breathless start, one that briskly leaves its audience a half-step behind, fully confident that they’re going to want to catch up.
In an age of hurried, truncated narratives, John Carter reminded me of the pleasures of exposition. John’s travails as a prospector involve a punchily edited series of prison break attempts, a coherently staged old-fashioned shootout, and an honest-to-goodness prairie horse chase. Throughout, we’re given glimpses into the man’s character: stubbornness, distrust of authority and causes, innate moral compass, prowess with guns and swords. All standard-issue hero stuff, and this is about as deep as the film’s psychology wants to delve, not that the material demands much more. Of greater importance to John Carter’s success is its ability to regularly up the gee-whiz factor: the horse chase is quite fun, but when John finds himself alone on Mars soon after, and takes his first step, only to find himself flung into the air then quickly crashed to the ground (revealed later as the result of Earth man’s bones interacting with Martian gravity), it’s clear the filmmakers are alive to the possibilities of the world they’re creating.
Once John learns to control his body (the sequence detailing his education showcases more brilliant editing), his newfound ability to leap across vast distances places him in prime position for heroism and provides John Carter with its most graceful visual motif. Before long, and much to his chagrin, John finds himself embroiled in the planetary war the Red Martians of peace-loving Helium and the destructive roving city of Zodanga have been waging for eons. He’s drawn in by lovely Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins) who’s on the run from Helium after her father Tados Mors (Ciarán Hinds) promises her hand in marriage to the enemy to end the war. If this all sounds a bit like Star Wars, it should—Burroughs’s 100-year old work practically invented the genre Lucas would later plunder, and now Stanton, surely reared and well versed in that foundational cinematic space trilogy pillages again in turn.
It is hard to shake off the feeling John Carter only exists because Disney saw in it the possibility for another immersive, world-making fiction in the record-breaking Avatar vein. The formula is similar: send a fairly average Joe to a far-off land where he’s somehow rendered special, pair him with a lovely princess whose civilization is threatened by war, cue battles and romance. Carter succeeds in creating a Mars that rivals Pandora for detailed rendering, and dispenses with some of Cameron’s drippier, logier tendencies. Stanton even provides, in a midfilm battle scene intercut with flashbacks to Earth which reveal Carter burying his wife and child after the Civil War, one of those bits of compressed, emotionally dense storytelling that Pixar has lately become so expert at (except Cars 2).
That the film is full of welcome cinematic devices like these doesn’t mean that John Carter isn’t often cornball (though this may well be by design), unevenly performed (I wish Kitsch was a better actor, the voice work from Morton and Dafoe is often more compelling than Kitsch’s on-screen persona), and, at times, narratively foreshortened (another fifteen minutes of Barsoom lore might not have hurt). These minor sins are forgivable in the face of a fiction that’s generous with simple pleasures: creative creature design, endlessly vast vistas, a buoyant score that’s instantly familiar and welcoming without lapsing into the derivative.
I am grateful that John Carter doesn’t seem compelled to allegorize the present moment. It doesn’t, as in the fictions of Michael Bay, score cheap points by ridiculing minority groups and rhapsodizing the patriotic. It features nary an ounce of cynicism. I’ll allow that in my critical old-age I’ve perhaps become more credulous in the face of big canvas movies produced with a modicum of care. Yet I couldn’t help but be charmed by the imperfect but stellar John Carter, and simultaneously frustrated that all of the old-fashioned joy it attempts to inspire will likely go unexperienced by viewers who’ve been craving just that.