My (very positive) review of JOHN CARTER
I never got around to seeing Andrew Stanton’s John Carter in theaters because of the lukewarm reviews, but I finally picked it up on DVD at the library. A lot of us know the story of what happened with this film — it fell prey to a regime change at Disney, the new regime had no interest in it, it got almost no marketing, the title was too vague and unrevealing, etc. And the reviews said the movie was too confusing or cluttered or what-have-you.
I agree, the title sucks. This is a grand adventure story set on a fantasy version of Mars. This is an adaptation of a work of classic adventure fiction that was a major inspiration for Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars, and a wealth of modern adventure fiction. And yet if you don’t recognize the name John Carter, the film’s title tells you absolutely none of that. It would’ve been so much better to call it A Princess of Mars, or Under the Moons of Mars, or Warlord of Mars. Heck, even John Carter, Warlord would’ve helped. (The rumors were that Disney didn’t want a Mars-related title because of a recent failed Mars-titled movie, but apparently Stanton shied away from it because Carter didn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the movie. Nice idea, works fine for the initiated, but for everyone else it’s a terrible title.)
And I agree, the opening is poorly handled. The film has two prologues too many. The opening scene of the battle on Mars is too confusing, since we don’t know who these characters are or what’s at stake; and more importantly, it reveals too much at the start, and deprives the audience of the chance to discover Mars along with Carter (although I admit today’s ludicrously impatient filmgoing audiences might not be inclined to sit around for the slow-burn buildup). And we didn’t need to see Carter eluding his tail and sending the telegram to Edgar Rice Burroughs; that was just padding at this point and would’ve worked better at the end if it had been needed at all, which it probably wasn’t. The film would’ve done better to start with Burroughs’s arrival — which would’ve had the added advantage of reflecting the structure of the first book, the foreword with Burroughs explaining to the reader how he came into possession of the manuscript detailing Carter’s adventures — starting us out from Burroughs’s POV before we move to Carter’s.
But once you get past the problems with the opening scenes, the film starts to improve considerably. Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, shows some excellent comic timing and sense of character in the sequence where Carter repeatedly attacks the cavalrymen who are trying to recruit him and repeatedly gets beaten down by them. And once the film does get to Mars . . . well, I don’t want to go into specifics, or I’d be here all day. In short, the Mars portions of this film are an extraordinary work of filmmaking, a masterwork of design, worldbuilding, and cinematography, with a mostly wonderful cast bringing out the best in the material. Stanton and his team really do an amazing job creating the world of Barsoom — its architecture, its costuming, the implied details of culture and history. It really feels like this is a whole world that’s been there all along and we’re just visiting and getting these glimpses of all this deep, intricate background that underlies it all. And despite being largely a computer-generated film with CGI aliens and virtual sets, it has the feel of a classic Hollywood historical epic. Michael Giacchino’s memorable score evokes the flavor of Lawrence of Arabia as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it fits the movie very well.
The CGI itself is extraordinarily well-done. Of course it’s quite photorealistic, as one would expect from the technology today, and of course the character animation of the 10-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked Tharks is superbly handled, as you’d expect from a Pixar director. But what struck me was the discipline Stanton exercised in shooting this virtual world. Too often, filmmakers using CGI do all these impossible, swooping camera moves just to show off “Ohh, look how CGI we are and what a big impressive virtual environment we built and how easy it is to go zooming around all over the place,” and it just divorces you from any sense of reality and makes it look like a fakey CGI environment. But Stanton builds these huge, amazing virtual sets and landscapes and then photographs them as if they were live action, with the camera constrained by physical and practical limits. And that camera discipline gives it all a very realistic, grounded flavor which does a lot to sell the fantasy. There are so many filmmakers today who could learn from that.
But what about the story, the characters, the actors? Well, I’ll grant that the story is pretty complicated, even a bit cluttered, with so much going on. You have Carter learning about Barsoom, meeting the key characters like Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris, getting embroiled in the multilevel rivalries between the Tharks and Red Martians, between Barsoom and Zodanga, between all of them and the super-advanced Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who’s manipulating everything behind the scenes. But in its way, that fits into that overall sense of coming into a well-established world and having to deal with its complexities. In some ways the manipulations of Shang and his Thern race seem like a complication that could’ve been left out, but they do serve to explain how Carter got to Barsoom in the first place — I don’t think today’s audiences could’ve accepted that he just wished himself there — and they set up a mythology arc that could’ve been effective at tying a whole trilogy together if the film had done well enough to get sequels — which I really wish it could. Also, the visualization of the Therns’ technology was intriguingly novel and imaginative.
I also didn’t find Carter to be the most likeable protagonist, and though Taylor Kitsch was perfectly adequate in the role, he wasn’t exactly compelling. Still, Stanton’s writing made the character sympathetic where Kitsch fell short, and there was a brilliant bit of direction and editing when Carter is in the middle of a ferocious battle (the kind that, according to Stanton, happened every other chapter in the books, but that are kept to only a few in a film that’s surprisingly character-driven) and the scene intercuts with flashbacks of Carter burying his wife and child. Not only are the transitions between his movements in the two times very deftly handled, but it’s effective at countering the cinematic tendency to treat battle as something fun or glamorous. Carter is fighting for his life, using his superstrength in Martian gravity to decimate a horde of primitives, yet his thoughts are on the pain of loss, the devastating consequences of death. Okay, granted, the same doesn’t go for the later battle scenes, which get quite gory (albeit with PG-13-appropriate blue alien blood), but it was nice to have that one time.
And I’ve been saving my praise for just about the best thing in this movie, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She is simply magnificent. She’s playing much the same sort of character as Princess Leia (naturally, given how Burroughs influenced Lucas) — a princess and administrator who’s an impassioned rebel leader and a strong, capable warrior who’s unimpressed by an aspiring male rescuer and quickly proves herself at least his equal in a fight, yet also has a deeply loving and compassionate side that only adds to her strength — and she sells it even better than Carrie Fisher did. She makes Dejah a deeply impressive figure, wise, powerful, commanding, and beautiful, and with a great voice too. It’s easy to understand why the bitter, reserved Carter would lose his heart to her and why armies would follow her. Dejah is an iconic figure in SF literature, and getting her right was a tall order — and Collins met every expectation and then some (except for, well, the customary nudism of Burroughs’s Barsoomians; I wouldn’t have minded a tad more authenticity there).
It’s a shame this movie suffered from the weak title, poor marketing, and flawed opening, because for the most part this is a superb bit of filmmaking that deserves to be remembered as a classic. I think in time it will be, as more people discover it on video. But it’s a real shame we’re unlikely to get sequels.