Spaceman Stiff, by David Bax
John Carter (originally titled John Carter of Mars, which is so plainly a better title that I’m still shocked it was changed) is in theaters this weekend as the result of a relatively recent trend. In 2007, Zack Snyder’s 300 opened huge in the month of March and established that the summer movie season could begin with the first thaw. Five years later, a mega-budgeted franchise launcher like John Carter can enter theaters before St. Patrick’s Day without raising an eyebrow.
In marketing John Carter, Disney has – as indicated by the watered down title – steered clear of many of the things that make the story and production interesting. Trailers have sidestepped the post-Civil War Western storyline that bookends the film. Meanwhile, advertisements have blared that the film is from the studio that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland, making no mention of the film being from Andrew Stanton, the director of Wall-E, Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life. The discerning moviegoer can be forgiven for wondering if there is any substance to be found. Apart from the spectacle and the shirtless Taylor Kitsch, is the film actually about anything?
Stanton’s fans can be assured that John Carter is most assuredly about something. The next question, that of how successfully it is about something, has a more disappointing answer.
Based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs called A Princess of Mars, the film begins (after some narration explaining the races of Martians we’ll come to know and their histories) with a very wealthy man named John Carter dying in his mansion outside of New York City in 1881. His nephew, Ned, inherits his estate and, along with it, a handwritten story of Carter’s adventures on Mars. From there, we flash back to 1868 and the Arizona territory, where a younger, poorer Carter (alone though ostentatiously wearing a wedding band) searches for gold while stubbornly trying to stay out of the way of both the Army and the Apaches. Hiding from said in a cave, he encounters a mysteriously attired bald man and finds himself accidentally transported to Mars. There he awakens on a dying planet being terrorized by a human-looking race called the Zondagans. After being captured by a less human-looking race – the barbaric Tharks – he soon finds himself fighting alongside Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of the Heliumites, the planet’s last hope for rationality and peace who also look a lot like humans.
Here we locate the theme to which I have alluded. Scarred by the battles he’s seen and fought, Carter believe that war is a pitiful pursuit and that no cause is worth fighting for. Yet that belief is only a symptom of his true affliction. His deep loss has left him numbed to humanity (as well as Martian-manity). Despite his efforts to remain aloof – his repeated attempts to escape the Army in Arizona are among the film’s comedic highlights – various conditions keep compelling him into action, as if the fates have prescribed him a forced catharsis.
There’s some big stuff going on in this movie and not just in the looming personal issues Carter must overcome. There is a gigantic, rollicking adventure show being put on for you and when the film is in that mode, it really does work. Stanton is not just throwing effects and noise and the sheer scale of the thing in your face. He’s telling wonderful and exciting little stories with each action sequence. From the cowboys and Indians horseback chase to Carter facing off against a hundred Zondagans armed only with a sword, these grand displays are multitudinous within the 132 minute running time. While it’s problematic for me that the very “different-looking” Tharks are treated like second class citizens in the presence of even the heroic “regular-looking” characters, the site of scores of ten foot tall green creatures with four arms and horns kicking ass goes a way toward soothing my liberal irritations.
Unfortunately, the nature of cinematic storytelling requires the Stanton also move his narrative along with scenes of only a few actors speaking actual dialog. It is at these junctures that the film comes unforgivably to a standstill. Stanton, both as director and as co-screenwriter with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, has overlooked the fact that big ideas, as important and capable of driving great works of art as they are, only exist through the wants and needs of individuals. You’ll leave the theater knowing little to nothing about what makes the characters unique apart from their jobs and their roles in the plot. To some extent, this is owing to Kitsch and Collins’ limited capabilities in emoting but this film also features Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston and Thomas Haden Church among other talented character actors. Most of the blame falls to Stanton for the film’s ultimately irreconcilable faults.
About halfway into the film, there is a virtuosic battle scene into which Stanton has cut flashes of Carter’s remembrances; the things he left behind on Earth and the things he’ll never get back even if he were to return. It’s thrilling, beautiful and powerful, one of the best things I’ve seen in film so far in 2012. In many ways, John Carter is a good summer movie in March but, with the exception of that one fleeting segment, it’s not a great movie at any time of year.