“Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
That’s how C.S. Lewis famously stated the question each man and woman must answer about the Messiah, the savior from heaven, whose initials are J.C. Others have since paraphrased him: “Liar, lunatic… or lord?”
In the new space fantasy adventure by Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, that question comes up again. This time, the people of Mars must decide what to make of their own J.C. … their own savior who claims to have come from the heavens (or more specifically, from Earth).
But in the end, the question is for us to answer. Is John Carter — the movie — a letdown, looney toons, or a landmark?
There are critics who will line up behind each of those answers.
What’s this moviegoer’s answer? All of the above.
When the credits rolled at the end of John Carter, I was relieved… relieved that it’s wasn’t the $230 million dollar disaster that I’ve been hearing about. And yet, the more I think about the film, yeah… I am disappointed. I wanted to love it. Instead, I’m begrudgingly clicking on “Like.”
I’m very sorry to say this, as I have been (and will remain) a huge fan of Andrew Stanton. He made Finding Nemo which remains my favorite film in the Pixar canon. He made WALL-E, which I love deeply and watch frequently. But there are a few flagrant flaws in John Carter, such that I would never have associated the film with the Stanton name (or with the name of his co-writer, Michael Chabon).
It’s not entirely his fault. The material — from the early, pre-Tarzan work of Edgar Rice Burroughs — is wonderfully ludicrous to begin with. Burroughs concocted grandiose fantasies with little that can be taken very seriously by anyone over the age of fourteen. And the names he gave to places and characters sound like they were made up by a six-year-old. For some, that fact alone will be a deal-breaker — and sure enough, the movie’s inspiring the wrath of a thousand cynical critics.
Still, this is material that has captivated the imaginations of adolescents — especially boys — for generations. I’m still fond of stories like that, and so the names didn’t bother me. If Stanton and Chabon had tried to make John Carter hip, or if they’d sought to erase its epic silliness, it would be a betrayal of the material.
You can feel Stanton’s childlike enthusiasm for this stuff all the way through. While he toes the line of camp throughout, letting us know that he’s mature enough to see how silly it is, he never apologizes for the genre or its conventions. He never turns it into a joke.
Because of that, I find the film endearing in spite of its flaws.
Alas, the biggest flaw of all is its title character.
John Carter — a gold-hunting Confederate soldier who accidentally uploads himself to Mars — is amusingly rough, rugged, and irascible in the opening scenes. I enjoyed those scenes because they felt like they sprang from the imagination that worked so much physical comedy into WALL-E‘s opening act. But once Carter gets to Mars, his charisma disappears as rapidly as his home-world clothing.
Actor Taylor Kitsch certainly looks convincing as an Edgar Rice Burroughs hero in a loincloth and leather, slinging weapons around against big tusk-thrusting alien beasts. But every time he opens his mouth, he sounds like he’s working really hard to sound sexy and determined. He sounds like a college freshman who thinks he’s Gladiator‘s Maximus. He’s works hard to muster some of the Han Solo/ Indiana Jones brand of wise-assery. But as he throws himself whole-heartedly into the action… there’s just not much heart there to throw. The character has no humanizing foibles or depth. This Carter’s a muscular action figure, nothing more. (Steven Greydanus, in his fair and balanced review, shares an excerpt from Burroughs’ book that tells us just how engaging Carter should have been.) This guy makes Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully from Avatar seem almost Shakespearean in complexity.
Fortunately, the movie isn’t just about him. Everybody else in the movie — even the goofy alien dog — is more interesting than him.
A few words about the setup: Mars, based on the vision of the red planet popular in Burroughs’ day, is called “Barsoom” by the natives. It looks like Star Wars’ Tatooine with its dusty dunes and big, clumsy alien steeds — actually, it looks more like the Tatooine of the prequels, which was a largely CGI environment that never looked quite as authentic as the Tunisian desert of the original. That’s an association that brings back bad memories. Doesn’t mean Stanton’s made a mistake; it’s just unfortunate. I don’t want to think about midi-chlorians while watching John Carter.
When Carter arrives on those hot sands, he seems to do just fine in all of that sunshine, and because of Mars’ weaker gravity, he can leap around like human-sized Yoda, or a flesh-toned Incredible Hulk. This is all goofy fun, but Kitsch doesn’t quite inhabit these illusory worlds as convincingly as Peter Jackson’s fellowship inhabited the animated environments of The Lord of the Rings. The whole thing feels more generated than actual, more artificial than organic, and more suited to comedy than drama.
There are three clashing cultures on Barsoom.
First and best, the Tharks. They’re nine-foot-tall, six-limbed mantis-like beings who enjoy Coliseum-style violence. There are four of them important to the plot — a conscientious, thoughtful leader (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a persecuted female (Samantha Morton), an imperious bitch (Polly Walker), and a carnage-loving brute (Thomas Haden Church). Impressively animated, these characters are just distinct enough in design to keep us from getting confused, and they actually did make me care about them. A little.
Then, there are the Zodangans. (See what I mean? The names!) The Zodangans are a violent military people with extravagant flying machines and one-note personalities. They’re led by Sab Than, who probably became a villain soon after his parents named him “Sab Than.” Sab (Dominic West, best known as Officer McNulty from The Wire) is brawny, obnoxious, and looks sharp in his wild costumes. But his role is basically to be the movie’s Prince Humperdink, armed with a magical hand cannon made out of a luminous, sugary blue web.
The weapon is a gift from another villain, a bland, shapeshifting, allegiance-free Satan whose powers are confoundingly inconsistent and undefined. Played by Mark Strong — please, somebody, forbid him from playing stock villains ever again — this devil isn’t just one note, he’s a broken piano key pounded over and over again.
And then there is the beautiful but persecuted city of Helium, full of… what? Heliumites? While I was hoping to find somebody there who spoke in a cartoonish, Chipmunk-y voice, instead I got the king of Helium, played by Ciarán Hinds. Hinds has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing emperor-like characters in pseudo-Roman gear. He has that haunted tyrant look — like his mind is playing an endless loop of his worst nightmares, or like he lives in a perpetual state of having just discovered that his favorite TV series has been canceled. But he’s a great actor, and he really sells it here.
The king of Helium has reason to look distressed. The only way he can save his city from the advancing Zodangans is to give up his daughter in marriage to the wicked Prince Humperdinck.
And now we come to the film’s one truly wondrous feature:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Princess of Mars! Oh, why didn’t they call the movie John Carter and the Princess of Mars? It would have been so much cooler and more accurate. The Princess of Mars owns this movie. Like Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in Avatar, she’s ten times as charismatic and persuasive as her male counterpart.
Playing the princess, whose name is Dejah Thoris, Lynn Collins is a revelation. And I’m not just talking about those costumes (Dejah-view!) which she was clearly born to wear. As the nubile warrior princess. Collins seems so at ease, so persuasive in her speeches about her home city of Helium, so commanding in combat, that moviegoers are likely to lose track of the plot as they dream of seeing her star in Wonder Woman.
There’s just enough sexual tension between the princess and J.C., and just enough spirited action to keep things humming along. But the film’s strong points almost make it more frustrating, because you can see that a few more weeks on the screenplay might have turned this from an amusing time at the movies into a great adventure film.
So it’s aggravating. I just don’t care about Carter himself. And the CGI battle scenes are just a familiar kind of Attack of the Clones-inspired CGI chaos. I found my attention drifting whenever battles were unleashed. I wanted Stanton’s storytelling skills to carry me far away from any memories of The Phantom Menace. Instead, I felt somewhat detached, watching the film give frequent and enthusiastic high-fives to the many superior sci-fi and fantasy epics that were inspired by Burroughs’ fantasies. (In the opening act, there is an obvious homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s famous prologue. Later, Carter is seen bathed in blue blood, looking a little like a fellow from the planet Pandora.)
This sustained amusement was only disrupted by occasionally predictable plot twists. (One particularly convenient event near the end involves an entire culture changing its mind about something rather momentous, simply because it will enable “save the day” heroics.)
Overall, watching John Carter is like watching March Madness basketball only to see the highest-ranked team win a game by a couple of points after a disappointing performance.
I want to buy Andrew Stanton a drink, sit down, and hear him lament what must have been a hell of a project to manage. The cynical commentaries and “What went wrong?!” speculations are, for the most part, useless noise and arrogant presumption. Movies are complicated. Big-budget “tentpole” films are incredibly challenging. It’s a wonder any of them ever work. Considering the challenges, and that this was Stanton’s first live-action film, I’m sufficiently impressed. I found John Carter to be much more satisfying than most recent superhero movies, and ten times more fun than Cowboys and Aliens. I hope he gets overwhelmed by requests for a sequel. And if he gets the chance to make one, I hope he’ll assemble a team of his best storytelling collaborators with a particular focus on beefing up the character — not the muscles — of John Carter. Because I want a movie about Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, that deserves her.
One more thing:
There’s a moment when John Carter and the princess test each other’s trust. She admits that she’s not sure if he’s a liar, or mad, or just what he says he is. I laughed out loud, incredulous. And not just because it reminds me of “the Jesus question.”
I laughed because I think C.S. Lewis would have seen the irony. Lewis believed that mythology has always contained traces of the Gospel, because it comes from our built-in expectation of a savior. Ancient mythology expressed humanity’s expectation of the Messiah. Recent mythology points back to the moment when our hopes, expressed in storytelling, were fulfilled in history. Imagine how Lewis would laugh to hear those questions — paraphrasing what he described as the fundamental question posed to Jesus — raised in reference to a mythological big-screen hero in 2012. I suspect that Andrew Stanton knew what he was doing there.
It’s a good scene, whatever its origins. And when the Princess of Mars pins Carter with her fierce gaze, you can tell that she really wants to believe in him.
I wish I could too.