John Carter is a film that has been stuck in the bowels of development hell for years. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal science fiction series of novels, Barsoom, John Carter represents Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s first foray into live action. Stanton’s Pixar films Finding Nemo and WALL-E are considered some of Pixar’s best films, and two of the best animated films of the last decade. Brad Bird, another excellent Pixar director, also recently made the jump to live-action in the critically acclaimed box office smash Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. However, Stanton’s transition from lost clown fish and wistful, love-struck robots is a little bit more uneven.
John Carter, the titular protagonist, is an ex-Confederate military officer who is looking to find gold and strike it rich in the American west during the year 1868. While on the run from local Cavalry-men and Apache natives in the Arizona territory, Carter stumbles on a cave filled with gold. However, before he can bask in his success, he encounters a strange man in the cave. There is a brief altercation, in which Carter kills the man defensively and picks up a medallion the man was carrying that proceeds to whisk him to a strange, red desert land. Soon we learn that Carter has been transported to Barsoom, the name the natives have given to what we know as the planet Mars. On Barsoom, due to the planet’s lower gravity and his own higher bone density, Carter is able to leap fantastic heights and becomes superhumanly strong. Because of these amazing attributes, the warring factions of Barsoom attempt to enlist Carter to their sides. Carter, having been burned once already by the cause of the Confederates, is defiant. That is, until he meets the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris, who offers to help him return to his cave of gold in return for his assistance in defeating the would-be conqueror of Barsoom, Sab Than.
John Carter’s narrative is presented as a flashback, as Carter’s nephew reads about his uncle’s fantastic adventures upon learning his uncle has died and left him everything. This narrative device is used effectively, and the ending of John Carter was thus fairly satisfying. However, the film’s script seemed as though it was unsure about which direction it wanted to go in. The source material paints a tale that is epic, grand, and a veritable space opera. In this sense, the production design of the film is top notch; Stanton and the production team did a wonderful job conveying that same sense of scale and old school sci-fi grandeur throughout the film. The same cannot be said, though, of the script itself. The script meanders between being semi-serious and overtly campy fairly often. Characters are given silly dialogue that doesn’t always suit the situations they are in, and much of the drama is clichéd. Despite its blockbuster budget and marketing, John Carter often gives a distinctive B-movie feel.
I’m willing to give Stanton the benefit of the doubt and attribute most of the film’s uneven tone to the script and not necessarily his direction. The man is a talented director, and the sense of wonder that he invoked in Finding Nemo and WALL-E can be found in small pockets throughout John Carter. The acting in the film was passable across the board, but nothing significantly special. Taylor Kitsch is often trumpeted as a major up and coming leading man. The first time I saw him he portrayed one of my favorite X-Men characters in my least favorite X-Men film, Origins: Wolverine. In that film he played Gambit, and I found him to be fairly entertaining in that role despite the fact that it felt shoehorned and thus very underwritten. However, I’m still apprehensive about his ability to carry a film as a lead. His John Carter was very wooden and boring throughout most of the movie. Kitsch was unable to truly evoke the sense of a man who has been betrayed by “causes worth fighting for,” and who has lost everything in that fight. He simply wasn’t very compelling, but perhaps he did the best with what he was given in the script. Meanwhile, I tried to feel that sense of epic space opera while listening to Michael Giacchino’s score. Unfortunately, his music was almost as inconsistent as the rest of the film, soaring at some parts, while boring during others.
None of this is to say that John Carter isn’t a fun movie. Despite its shortcomings, it’s still a solid actioner and its B-movie vibe can definitely be entertaining. My favorite part of the movie was definitely Woola, Carter’s super fast alien lizard-dog companion. Woola is introduced early on in the film and is shown to be super protective of Carter, and even saves Carter in a pivotal part of the movie. Woola was definitely made to appeal to a younger audience, but he’s still completely awesome. In the end, my only real complaint with John Carter is that I was kind of hoping it’d be better than it was. This was supposed to be the first film in a trilogy, and thus I am still hopeful that a potential sequel will be a much tighter, more focused movie worthy of Burroughs’ novels.
In the last few years, Disney, that beloved company of our youth, has sort of averaged out to okay in that film-making business they seem to be so fond of. They fell with things like Alice in Wonderland, that atrocious Prince of Persia flick, and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but redeemed themselves with things like Toy Story 3 and Tangled.
They have amazing production values, which is something I love, but it seems like their writers have been rather hit or miss. Maybe because of this trend, they recently made John Carter, a movie based on that most Frank Frazetta of topics, the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
John Carter follows the story of a man named (surprisingly, I know) John Carter as he accidentally travels to Mars. Now, as many of you know (given that this is RPI), Mars has roughly one-third of Earth’s gravity. What this means is that our friendly neighborhood Earth man, brought to Mars, is roughly three times as strong, can jump three times as high, and is generally more impressive. So when Mr. John Carter is brought to Mars, he instantly becomes the biggest bad-buttock-region on the planet.
This development would normally seem like a good thing, but Mars is embroiled in an epic conflict for the destiny of the planet, and as the strongest and most impressive man on the planet, Carter is immediately pulled into the middle of it as a sort of human WMD.
At this juncture, I thought the movie managed to pull a very strong idea into its normal less-than-serious demeanor. Carter refuses to work for either side, as he has just been a part of the Civil War and he is tired of having to fight for an ideal that isn’t necessarily his. The actor portraying Carter also did a fine job of pushing this idea through his gruff demeanor and obvious care for the involved parties. The internal conflict was clear and, I felt, rather touching.
As you might guess, the movie gets pretty hairy, with Señor Carter doing things like jumping onto airplanes, fighting blind albino King Kongs, and generally making a delicious nuisance of himself, all while trying to maintain his respectful, gentlemanly southern demeanor.
In most cases, I despair of books being made into movies. I love books, I was raised on them, and the transition from page to the silver screen is rarely a positive transformation. Having said that, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading these books and thus was not bothered. The writing was good, the plot was complicated in some areas and simple in others, and the production values were incredible. Watching a man cut through a five-foot-thick monkey was amusing and terrifying, and seeing him end an entire army on his own was hilarious.
All in all, it was worth the ticket price. Completely. Go see it; I guarantee a good time. Ridiculous things will happen; you’ll laugh, you might cry, and you’ll be surprised.