Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Unless you haven’t read a review of Disney’s box office-failing film, John Carter (Stanton, 2012), then you’re probably aware of the unanimous conclusion that Disney badly botched the $250 million film with its advertising campaign. I remember seeing the first trailer and thinking, “That looks positively uninteresting.” This was before I knew that the film was directed by Andrew Stanton, the Pixar alum well known for his critically acclaimed gems Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Of course, this isn’t to say that Stanton gets a free pass or is incapable of having a poor outing, but a strong directorial track record inspires a level of trust between director and critic, and it was this level of trust that led me to give John Carter a chance.
Adapted from Edgar Rice Borroughs’s A Princess of Mars — the first novel in his 11 volume Barsoom series — John Carter tells the story of a Confederate Civil War veteran who, in his 1868 quest to find gold, is mysteriously transported to Mars (or “Barsoom,” depending on the character perspective). John Carter’s (Taylor Kitsch) adventure begins when he humorously discovers that he has a super-human ability to jump around on Mars, and only intensifies when he must survive as a captive of the Tharks — a rudimentary clan of green outer space creatures with tusks, four arms, and a gladiatorial temperament. Eventually, Carter and the Tharks find themselves caught up in what is, at least on the surface, a politically driven war between two Barsoom cities: Helium (lovers of peaceful coexistence) and Zodanga (plunderers seeking domination). However, controlling the conflict are the Therns, a race of supposedly immortal beings with seemingly endless power.
Pressed by Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins in a spotlight-stealing performance) to help the people of Helium, Carter must decide if he is going to be a savior “willing to lay down his life for the people” of Mars, or if he is content to wallow in his unruly existence on Earth, stuck mourning past tragedies that grieve his existence.
As most critics have pointed out, the film’s problems start with its title character. Carter is too bland of a character for the first half of the movie, in particular. When we find out about the past tragedy that befell Carter’s earthly family, it’s too much of a revelation in the sense that his character doesn’t exude the depths of those hurts. Up until that reveal, it didn’t make sense to me why Carter comes across as purely indifferent: His apathy seems unaccompanied by emotional pain. The internal conflict intended in the lead-up to Carter’s decision to stay or leave Barsoom falls flat, because, aside from a clue or two, there’s not much of a fully embodied indication that Kitsch is playing an embittered character.
Additionally, there’s not really a defining fight with an enemy for John Carter. The two most significant challengers — Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) in the arena and Sab Than (Dominic West) in the end of the film — both fall rather abruptly and uneventfully. Couple this with the previous point about John Carter as a lacking central character in the film, and my lasting problem with John Carter is that none of the stakes felt weighty enough. I was often absorbed in the film’s alternate world and action sequences, but rarely because of the central narrative itself.
Yet, after the film, I felt an overriding sense of satisfaction at how thoroughly entertaining John Carter was for most of its 2+ hour duration. This is first (and mostly) a credit to Stanton’s technical and visual achievement. The landscapes, the creatures, the vehicles, the sounds — it all comes together in a fully imagined world that is colorful, that is parallel to our own in appropriate thematic ways, and that generally features successful high-flying spectacle. There are a handful of genuinely exciting action sequences that, instead of ruining them, I’ll say left me expressing to my wife, that was awesome. Stanton’s consistent visual achievement also seems to aid his ability to make somewhat unwieldy and sometimes unintentionally comedic source material not only manageable but also interesting.
My above summary seems like it would be more convoluted than it actually plays on screen. Stanton brings a comedy to the source material that enables its silliness without undermining the whole thing. Additionally, the film’s “frame” works well, particularly given how it ends in such a way that is satisfying enough, while leaving me wanting to know what happens next on both Earth and Mars. It functions well as both an attention-grabbing introduction and a clever “twist” conclusion.
Finally, as Steven D. Greydanus and Jeffrey Overstreet have pointed out, there are some interesting Christological allusions littered throughout the film. While I think it mistaken to see a “Christ figure” in the film, some of the allusions are too noticeable to be coincidental (particularly given Stanton’s profession of Christian belief). One aspect of John Carter that I found most interesting is that Carter finds restoration, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose — new life, you might say — in another world. But by “another world,” I mean in ways that are a testament to the this-worldly truthfulness of fantasy itself. The alternate worlds we create are largely about emphasizing the metaphysical world we inhabit. And in this film, Carter regains his sense of humanity when he aligns with a certain teleology — one where he willingly and lovingly puts his life at stake for others.
John Carter is not a sci-fi adventure fantasy to be considered among the greats, but it’s also grandiose, entertaining, and visually engrossing enough to be far from a dud (in terms of quality). John Carter’s disappointment is that it clearly displays the potential to have been great, without quite realizing that potential. This doesn’t make it a failure, just a really expensive good movie. Go see John Carter, because it’s worth it (and because it just might assuage leftover Phantom Menace disappointment). But also go see it so that Stanton may have an opportunity at a trilogy that I have a feeling would only improve with each sequel.