JOHN CARTER (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Andrew Stanton, 2012
What can you say about a movie that cost upwards of 250 million dollars to make, and maybe it’s not quite enough?
Well… John Carter, the new live action Disney epic — based on the popular early 20th century pulp series of science fiction novels (“A Princess of Mars,“ etc.) by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs — reportedly cost all of that and more, and it still looks like as if it’s missing something. But maybe it’s missing something money can’t buy. Set mostly in a Martian desert landscape that looks like Monument Valley, with an adventure script that suggests Star Wars crossed with Avatar, The Searchers and Flash Gordon, it’s not a bad movie. In fact — with its robust action, its classy cast and a gallery of Martian creatures that look like escapees from George Lucas’ cantina — it’s often quite entertaining.
Star Wars was the cinematic descendant of the original “John Carter” and I don’t see any reason why fans of the first movie shouldn’t also enjoy the second,. Thanks to its gifted troupe of technicians, to cinematographer Dan Mindel, production designer Nathan Crowley, all the visual effects people, and, most notably, co-writer-director Andrew Stanton (the Pixar-bred director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) it often looks great. But that certain vital human or emotional link that often can turn a simple spectacle into a rousing entertainment, is often missing here. It’s an epic in search of a pulse.
John Carter was adapted by a trio of writers, Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chambon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay“), from the Burroughs novel cycle that became a pop classic and inspired the whole genre of Flash Gordon-Buck Rogers “space operas.” And the result is a massively well-produced Martian show. You can see the $250 million, if not necessarily appreciate where it‘s going.
The book is one of Burroughs’s high-machismo fairytales: a male fantasy perfect for guys who get pushed around, and want to push back. In Burroughs’s yarn, Captain John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of Wolverine), is an explorer and ex-Confederate Army Captain who dies and leaves his fortune, and a journal, to his relative, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara).
The journal describes Carter’s hitherto unknown and undreamed-of Martian odyssey: It tells us how Carter mysteriously travels to Mars (not by space ship, like Flash, but by something like teleportation) and has a series of Avatarian adventures while bounced around between three warring Martian factions — two of which (the residents of the flying City of Helium and their nemeses, the Zadonga Warriors) look human, and talk English, and one of which (The Tharks) are six-limbed galloping creatures who also talk English. (As well as Tharkian, with subtitles.) The Tharks are the most interesting, and often the best acted, interpreted by a crack ensemble that includes Willem Dafoe as wise leader Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as rebellious Sola.
The other factions have star power too. Smart, raven-haired, Newman-eyed love interest Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her stolid pop Tardos (Ciaran Hinds) are among the Heliumites. The Zadonga heavies include Dominic West as Sab Than, the creep who aspires to Dejah’s hand (and has conned her dad into a “political marriage“), and the ubiquitous Mark Strong as evil advisor Matai Shang, who can change shapes into the images of others (which makes him an ideal politician). The fact that all of these Martian groups, even the ones from different species and planets, can talk English is the clearest sign that the whole Carter Chronicle is here what it was regarded as when I was a science fiction-reding 12-year-old: juvenile sci-fi, or “space opera” (which is why I passed them up for Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. This 12-year-old’s snobbery was despite the fact that I’d been a big Burroughs-Tarzan fan at 9 — and had even written, back then, a 60-page Tarzan novel of my own, called, very Burroughs-ishly, “Tarzan and the Caves of Gaspaar.”)
I probably would have adored this movie at nine. It’s faithful to Burroughs, and the cast is a good one — and those were my main movie-judging criteria at that time. But the cast is weak at the top — with Kitsch’s Carter. (Paradoxically maybe, he’s not kitschy enough. Or the alternative: He’s neither amusingly campy nor honestly emotional.) Kitsch’s face has a bit of Kurt Russell‘s surly charm, but, for most of this movie, he lacks the strong conquering presence of someone who reacts so well to getting whisked off to Mars from the Old West, and who then becomes a local hero of the Tharks due to his ability to leap around in huge bounds in the altered gravity — and to top it off, of someone who could woo and win a Martian Princess. Something has to explain Carter’s unusual heroism — besides that habitual movie star short cut: to heroism: extreme good looks.
The irony of John Carter, is that, with its space battles, interplanetary love affair and weird creatures (the best good beast is the huge puppyish “calot” Woola and the best bad ones are the huge arena monsters )it looks overfamiliar, and it’s been carped at by some as simply a Star Wars wannabe or Avatar retread. Actually, the John Carter stories, which began in All-Story in 1912, were the great grand-daddies of all space operas. However much they may have been influenced by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, they were among the first stories to blend the landscapes, action, heroes and ethos of the pulp Western — the “horse opera” — with an exotic, otherworldly, other-planetary backdrop.
So, 100 years later, it isn’t quite fair to criticize this John Carter (which becomes John Carter of Mars in the end-titles) as being a knockoff itself. People have been taslking about adapting Carter to the movies, ever since Loony Tuner Bob Clampett proposed a feature cartoon version back in 1931. “Flash Gordon” was a knock-off of the Carter stories — and James Cameron hasn’t been shy about claiming for Avatar the previous influence and example of Carter‘s Mars.
As to whether it’s a good movie, well yeah, it is, though it may have bitten off too big a chew. But it has everything you need in a movie like this, if you’re, oh say, nine to twelve. And I often wish I were a nine-year-old again, sitting beneath a tree at the Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, waiting for my mother to finish work, bending over a brown spiral notebook with a ball point pen, and writing “Tarzan and the Caves of Gaspaar.”