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John Carter

I’ve heard of some lengthy stays in development hell, but this picture may be the only one in history that’s been in development since 1931. Seriously, that’s the year in which legendary animator Bob Clampett first approached author Edgar Rice Burroughs with the idea of making a John Carter movie. Filmmakers have been attempting to make this movie since the days when color photography was still considered a special effect. Maybe it’s unfair to judge the final product against all the decades of trial and error that came before it, but I feel that this is important context nonetheless.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into this movie’s extensive history here. I’ve already done that elsewhere. I can also recommend a book called “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made,” in which author David Hughes describes the lengthy development of John Carter of Mars with a meticulous degree of detail. However, since I do think that a bit of history is necessary, let’s turn back the clock to the final days of 2009.

On December 18th of 2009, 20th Century Fox released Avatar. In the months that followed, the movie grossed nearly $2.8 billion worldwide, which made it (unadjusted for inflation) the biggest box office hit of all time. This is when Disney looked at John Carter of Mars, which was then just starting principal photography. And in a show of typical Hollywood logic, they said “Hey! We’ve got another science-fantasy 3D motion-capture epic about a hero from Earth fighting in a war among aliens. Let’s throw money at it. Here, take all the money you need. Have some money on top of that money. Don’t worry, you’re good for it! We can’t miss!”

Incidentally, “A Princess of Mars,” the novel that introduced John Carter, just happened to be one of the many influences that James Cameron listed for Avatar. Anyway, flash forward to 2011.

On March 11th of 2011, Disney released Mars Needs Moms. In the days that followed, the movie grossed nearly $39 million worldwide against a budget of at least $150 million, which made it (unadjusted for inflation) the biggest box office bomb of all time. And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Fox was responsible for history’s biggest movie hit, and history’s biggest flop now belonged to Disney. So naturally, Disney’s next step was to look at John Carter of Mars, which was now a year and a couple hundred million dollars into post-production. And in a show of typical Hollywood logic, they said “Hey! We’ve got another science-fantasy 3D motion-capture movie in which a human goes to Mars. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUGH!!!!!!! We’re fucked, we’re fucked, we’re FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKED!!!!!!”

Now obviously, I wasn’t there. I can’t know for certain that this was how Disney execs thought or acted in either time frame. But to my mind, this is the only sequence of events that makes any sense. How else could one explain why Disney allowed John Carter‘s budget to balloon past a reported $250 million? Why else would Disney change the title from John Carter of Mars to just plain John Carter while theaters were still coated in radioactive fallout from Disney’s last Martian movie? Speaking of the title, why else would Disney change the title’s design from this — which had a slightly fantasy sort of look — to the ugly and boring block letters of this?

Really, the marketing as a whole just reeked of uncertainty. Going back and looking at the trailers and TV spots for this film, every single one of them seems high on spectacle and low on coherence. Hell, Disney paid millions of dollars for a Super Bowl spot which turned out to be a total mess. It’s like they’ve actively been trying to hide the film’s Martian setting. Showing a bunch of CGI creations without any context might have passed muster a decade ago, but not now.

Audience tracking for this movie was extremely low before the film’s release, in large part because Disney just didn’t know how to sell this movie. And I’ll remind you that we’re talking about the fucking Walt Disney Company, which built its empire on being one of the most powerful and innovative marketing juggernauts on the planet. But then again, as I mentioned some time ago, Disney has been sucking pretty hard lately.

So now, in my list of recent grievances against the House of Mouse, I’d like to add one more: They poured a quarter-billion dollars into a century-old project, nurturing it into a very good movie and a rock-solid foundation for a blockbuster franchise, only to piss all of that away because they didn’t know what they had. Even when Disney succeeds, it somehow finds a way to fail!

Before I go any further, I’d like to link to this again. That article contains my thoughts on the book in addition to a synopsis of the plot. I suppose I could include both here, but I’ve wasted enough time as it is. So please take a few minutes to read it before continuing.

…Did you read it? Good. Thanks.

I’m glad to say that in general, the filmmakers made a lot of bold moves in the process of adaptation, and most of them work out surprisingly well. Though not all of them. Let’s begin with the “science fantasy” aspect of the source material, which the movie plays up to the hilt.

Easily the most prominent example is the Ninth Ray. In the book, inhabitants of Barsoom (that’s their name for Mars) have isolated nine colors from sunlight, as opposed to the seven of Earth (or Jasoom, if you like). The Eighth Ray has anti-gravity properties used to power Barsoomian vehicles, and the Ninth Ray is used to create vast amounts of energy. This should give you an idea of just how much Edgar Rice Burroughs cared about scientific accuracy.

Anyway, the filmmakers effectively turned the Ninth Ray into an all-purpose plot device. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, it’s how John Carter travels between worlds, it’s a MacGuffin to be fought over, and it can be used for all manner of magical purposes. I’ll grant that the Ninth Ray is very effective as a screenwriting tool, because that’s essentially all it is. There’s virtually no explanation for what the Ninth Ray is, how it was discovered, or what its limitations are (if any). It’s just something that the screenwriters use as plot hole spackle and nothing more.

In a similar vein, we have the Therns. In “Gods of Mars” — the sequel of this movie’s source text — the Therns were a race of White Martians that basically served as Barsoom’s priests. In the movie, they’re more like bona fide angels. Or possibly demons, I’m not sure which. And that’s part of the problem.

In this movie, the Therns’ sole responsibility is to move the plot forward. Not only is it a Thern who brings John Carter to Mars, but it’s the Therns who single-handedly orchestrate the war between Red Martians, ensuring the mutual destruction of both sides. Why? Hell if I know. Much like the Ninth Ray, the Therns are equipped with apparently limitless powers to pull from their asses, and they are very poorly developed aside from their role in the plot. They are antagonists and nothing more.

That said, it doesn’t feel quite right to say that the Therns are one-dimensional. I got the distinct feeling that the Therns did have an agenda and they did have motivations, even if neither were given any measure of explanation. Then again, that might be due to the strength of Mark Strong (here playing Chief Thern Matai Shang), who finally gets the chance to play a villain with some nuance. Additionally, I’ll be very interested to find out how the Therns fake their powers, if Andrew Stanton and co. choose to go that route in a sequel that they’re lucky enough to make. Finally, it’s worth noting that the filmmakers decided to embellish on two concepts that already existed in the source material, instead of making up whatever they wanted out of whole cloth. Make of that what you will.

Moving on, the filmmakers also made a lot of bold choices in bringing John Carter and Dejah Thoris to the screen, with surprisingly effective results. In the book, John Carter was designed to be a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto, letting us experience Barsoom through him. As such, he was naturally very handsome and great at everything he did. There was almost nothing to make him flawed or memorable or interesting. Thankfully, the movie rectifies all of that.

First and foremost, the film latches on to John Carter’s history as a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. Andrew Stanton and Taylor Kitsch portray him with all the pathos — not to mention the listlessness and disregard for authority — that comes from fighting and surviving the losing side of a war. For extra measure, the filmmakers gave him a wife and child that tragically died some time prior (the cause is never explained outright, however). In every possible way, the John Carter of the film is a man without a home, which perfectly sets him up to find one on Barsoom. Yes, he’s still a very stock character, but it’s still an improvement over the source material. And of course, it helps that Kitsch plays him with aplomb.

Then there’s Dejah Thoris. In the source material, she was about as three-dimensional and nuanced as Princess Peach. She was a pretty face to be wooed, protected, and fought for, nothing else. Fortunately, Lynn Collins’ Dejah is made of sterner stuff. Even though she does play the “damsel in distress” role on occasion, she’s still a very smart woman and a perfectly capable fighter, though she still has her vulnerabilities. Of course, it helps that Dejah was made into her kingdom’s chief scientist in addition to being its princess. Again, the character is completely stock, but an improvement over the source material nonetheless.

The Carter/Dejah romance is the core of the story, and it works beautifully here. Even when their dialogue together is godawful (and quite often, it is), Kitsch and Collins manage to keep the relationship watchable through smoldering chemistry alone. Though to be fair, it helps that Michael Giacchino is on hand with yet another phenomenal score to help pick up any emotional slack.

For all the crap I’ve been giving this movie about its screenplay, I can’t deny that it has its moments. For every Carter/Dejah scene that doesn’t work, there’s one that does. Also, Tars Tarkas’ introduction came with a bit of comic relief that wasn’t in the source text, which nicely offset the seriousness of First Contact between Earthlings and Martians. I should also mention Carter’s first scene with Bryan Cranston’s character, which elegantly established Carter’s “fuck ’em all” attitude in a humorous and aggressive way. Last but not least, Woola’s introduction was absolutely spot-on in how playful and funny it was.

The highlight of the supporting cast has to be Woola. Even if his sound design was just a little too overtly canine for my liking, the filmmakers still did a fine job of making a creature that was just the right mix of lovable and ugly. The plot made very effective use of him, and the little guy stole every scene he was in. Meanwhile, Dominic West seems to enjoy chewing scenery as another villain of the story, and Willem Dafoe turns in a serviceable performance as Tars Tarkas. Bryan Cranston is a pleasure to see as always, and James Purefoy makes the most out of what’s basically a cameo role. Ciaran Hinds also appears, giving a mere fraction of his talent to a totally thankless role. Compare that to Thomas Haden Church, who’s far more threatening in his role than I’d have thought him capable of. The weak links are easily Samantha Morton and Polly Walker, though that’s mostly due to the same root cause.

To be perfectly frank, the Tharks’ design in this movie underwhelmed me. I found them to be way too skinny and streamlined, not at all like the book’s hideous behemoths who would be crushed under their own weight in Earth’s gravity. Far more importantly, the design leaves very little way to tell one Thark from another. Tal Hajus was bigger than everyone else, and Tars Tarkas was distinct because of his wardrobe, but faded face paint designs and slightly different tusks were the only way to tell Sola and Sarkoja apart. The characters and their actresses really suffered for it.

Aside from that complaint, the Tharks were executed very well. Their four arms were utilized in some very clever ways, I liked how they locked tusks as a show of intimidation, and their cultural philosophy of rooting out weakness was nicely expressed.

As for the production design in general, I’m thrilled to say that Barsoom was built with a staggering attention to detail. An unbelievable amount of creativity and effort went into everything in this movie, from the flying machines to the revolving doorways. In the architecture, in the wardrobe, and even in the mechanics of how to operate Barsoomian machinery, it’s obvious that no design element was too small to overlook. What’s even more amazing is that this level of care and craft was put into every single one of the multiple Barsoomian cultures on display. Every city and every race feels like its own fully-realized culture, which makes the climactic battle royale even more epic.

The action in this movie is very good. The film offers a wide variety of chases and fight scenes, all of which are strategically placed in the plot to keep the film going at an energetic pace. I’ll grant that Carter does have a bit of an “Invincible Hero” thing going on, but he’s got super-strength, so there’s that. The wirework on him is a touch spotty at times, but the special effects otherwise looked amazing. I went whole-hog and saw this movie in 3D IMAX, but I honestly think the movie would look just as great in any theater format.

John Carter suffers from quite a bit of lazy storytelling, but that does nothing to harm it as a work of escapist fantasy. The action works, the humor works, the characters are effective, and the production design is top-notch. This is an epic high adventure that brings the world of Barsoom to vivid life in a way that would surely make Burroughs proud. This one comes recommended.

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