Extended Thoughts on ‘John Carter’

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John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Mark Strong

Modern discourse has become so difficult because of how defensive each of us is about the side we’re advocating for. I love social media such as Twitter, but such websites can make well-reasoned, expansive arguments challenging. The world of Twitter is, when discussing various pop-culture topics, closer to the gladiatorial arenas of Rome, where people give an automatic thumbs-up or thumbs-down before deciding someone’s ultimate fate. I don’t mean we should discount the immediate reaction, but even those kinds of reactions need further context and explanation.

See, I liked John Carter quite a lot. I’m still not sure whether liking the movie is an unpopular opinion because the other people who’ve seen it dislike it strongly or because some members of the media—heavily aided by Disney’s atrocious marketing campaign, about which more later—set  the film up to fail in the weeks beforehand. John Carter was a movie with an uphill battle from the word go, and some people—chief among them Nikki Finke of Deadline.com—seemed gleeful to destroy the film either without seeing it or before they watched the film unspool. Some others, after seeing the film, point to this as being another example of a studio throwing money at a potential franchise and being punished for cynical thinking.

I am not above schadenfreude, the idea of reveling in other people’s suffering, for certain movies. I will honestly and freely admit to being a hypocrite, one who’s hoping beyond hope to revel in the disaster known as Battleship. If ever there was an example of a studio throwing money at a potential franchise and hoping it would succeed, Battleship is it (and, coincidentally, the film stars the lead of John Carter, Taylor Kitsch). Though that film isn’t from Walt Disney Pictures—and thank God for that—it’s a prime example of cynical, soulless corporate thinking. At least, that’s the assumption I, and many others, make two months before the film’s release. For all we know, Battleship will turn out to be a satisfying and entertaining blockbuster. I doubt it, but it is possible.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to prejudge any movie or book or album or TV show. But we all do it. So I’m not saying prejudging John Carter is a bad thing. I did the same as most people when presented with the various trailers and TV spots that Walt Disney Pictures created for the film. The ads were bland, uninspiring, and did a very bad job of telling anyone why they should see the movie. Who is John Carter? Why does it look like he’s stuck in a same-old, same-old version of every bloated CGI epic of the last decade? As I mentioned on the podcast, the marketing for John Carter actually gets worse once you walk out of the theater, because it shows exactly how the ads didn’t capture the movie’s tone. There’s humor in the film, there’s romance, there’s action, and there’s adventure. Most of the trailers force an epic feel  into the footage. Is this movie something of an epic? Sure, but that’s not its only characteristic.

John Carter aims for the moon. It doesn’t quite get there, but it aims high and comes awful close. I fear that by even writing that sentence, it sounds like I’m giving this movie a pass. I clarified this on the podcast, so I’ll do it again here—if only to soothe myself. I don’t automatically give ambitious movies a pass. Sure, you get an A for effort, but that only goes so far. Ambition does not equal quality. John Carter has both. Its greatest flaw—the overarching one, the one that encapsulates many, though not all, of the issues I have with the film—is that there’s too much going on for one movie.

This is partly related to the film’s length; the movie is over two hours long. If you’ve been listening to the show for a long time, you know that I often criticize a movie’s length. Something’s either too long or too short, but it’s a frequent grip I have. And let’s be clear: any movie can be any length of time and be the best possible movie. What matters is not that John Carter is roughly 135 minutes long. What matters is what co-writer and director Andrew Stanton, and his fellow writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, do with that amount of time. Though most of the time spent on Barsoom—what we know as Mars, the Red Planet—is utilized well, the time surrounding it set on Earth feels like it’s a few minutes too long. These bookends, which fit with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, upon which the movie is based, are important but could be a few minutes shorter without losing their impact.

In some way, that’s the simplest I could explain each of this movie’s problems. Scene A could be longer or shorter and have the same impact as it does in its natural length. Another problem tied to this is the cast. Here, the issue is not that the actors are bad—it’s the opposite: they’re all quite good, some more than others. But almost all of them—Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds, and Thomas Haden Church are among the well-known performers—are underserved by the material. Purefoy has a few notable scenes as a soldier on the side of good, and he nearly walks away with the entire film, bursting with charisma and charm in his few minutes on screen. Who knows if Stanton has reams of extra footage and deleted scenes with Purefoy and the others, but I kind of hope so. If not, he cast a lot of well-known actors for a scant time on screen.

Much has been made of Stanton’s direction, his first time with live-action filmmaking after working at Pixar for his entire career. And though he isn’t as adept with the camera as Brad Bird was with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Stanton knows what he’s doing. There’s never a point here where it’s clear that he has anything to learn. His action is a bit more jittery and shaky, but even still, this would lump him in with most directors. Even Christopher Nolan, a director whose work I adore, doesn’t film action sequences as well as you might think. (Again, I love his work. But he likes his action herky-jerky and chopped.) But there’s nothing in John Carter, in terms of its direction, that makes me think Stanton is and always was better suited to working in computer animation.

The biggest flaw, as I said, is in the writing. There’s too much going on in this movie, outside of the main relationship between John Carter, as played by Taylor Kitsch, and Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins. Kitsch and Collins have some solid chemistry—they’re not smoldering off the screen, but they play well with each other. Most important, they know both how ridiculous some of the story can be—the main plot focuses on a mysterious ray of power, which is always inherently silly and pulpy—and how serious to play their characters. Stanton doesn’t go too campy here, but he also doesn’t tip the film into self-seriousness, so often the killer of otherwise enjoyable epic films.

By shoving as many elements into the movie—battles, romances, sidekicks, humor, villainy, old-fashioned heroism—John Carter aspires to be the next Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, and misses the mark. It is a mess, in many ways, and yet it’s one of the most enjoyable and infectiously entertaining films I’ve seen in a while. Outside of the marketing, the 3D, the title change—which, by the way, is a stupid choice and one I wish Stanton hadn’t acquiesced to or pretended made sense—and the bad buzz in general, John Carter is worthwhile viewing. It’s not a bulls-eye, but it comes awfully close. Ambition and quality come awfully close to meeting in the middle here.

  1. Lil says

    I also enjoyed the movie – it had enough of the original story in it to not disappoint fans. It looked exactly how an 8 year old me thought Barsoom should look. Good story, good action, good cgi, not too much soppy romantic stuff. And Woola! In fact, I enjoyed it so much I am going back to see it tomorrow!

  2. Charles Elsden says

    The film looked very much like what I saw in my head as a 10 year old boy reading the books. All three pals who saw it with me loved it as much as I did, one of whom did not previously know the story. The tale is updated and improved, a la Peter Jackson’s LOTR. Someday the strange corporate infighting at Disney will be told as its own story; perhaps it says as much about our society as the heroic saga itself.

  3. Peter W says

    I agree and think that you have done an excellent review. It’s very easy to rip this movie apart, but it’s not fair, because it is spectacular in many senses and very enjoyable. Stanton corrected many serious flaws of the original story and he came very close to making a huge epic. I really enjoyed his humour keeping the overall feeling a bit traxhy and never too serious. I also appreciated the prologue (great jump cuts) and the epilogue on Earth, both fitting very well to introduce and close the story (and I don’t think that they were too long). The best things on Barsoom are the creatures, most of all the gorgeous Tharks! Even Woola is great and his speed is exactly as Burroughs describes him. Taylor Kitsch as John Carter is an excellent choice. I’m less enchanted by Lynn Collins representing Dejah Thoris, but I think she is okay and girls should love her character.
    most of the problems derive from the erratic narration, including too many technological subplots and concentrating most of the time on explaining how Carter came to Mars, while missing on the human core of the story, which is “improbable friendship” beyond all racial, religious and cultural divides. Unfortunately Stanton didn’t realize that Burroughs left him a perfect invitation for making John Carter Dances with Tharks. So he decided to make John Carter meets Lara Croft and send them on a Relic Hunter mission. This story is not complicated at all, but it’s told in a very erratic way by two different narrators (Burroughs and Carter) intercut with scenes in which both are absent. This chaotic narration starts already with the horrible Wikipedia-style introduction on Barsoom. I believe the last time they committed a similar crime was in “Plan B from Outer Space”. By these early anticipations Stanton gives away many potential wows of his developing story.
    Planet Mars looks great and Carter’s exaggerated leaps are granted, it’s Hollywood. But when your main theme improbable friendship you need to develop it, otherwise it remains improbable. This regards Carter’s relation with both, Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris. Where “Dances with Wolves” took its time in an epic tale, telling Hollywood’s most compelling story in more than a decade, Stanton just rushes through at full speed. There isn’t even a sunset on Mars and it seems that everything happens in just one day. When Dejah Thoris explains Carter the solar system, she doesn’t even find the time to show him his homeworld in the nightsky! How can you miss such an occasion for good old romance? At least it would have been interesting to see how the Earth (with the Moon) looks from Mars. And it could have been a good occasion to compare the two worlds and learn some more about Martian culture. Woola’s loyalty can be taken granted, he’s a kind of dog, but how do we understand Tars Tarkas, since his revenge, which is an important part of the novel, deepening the friendship, simply doesn’t happen, because he is already Jeddak right from the start. As a result his befriending with Carter remains undeveloped and unmotivated. Stanton should have known better to trust the srengths of Burroughs’ original story. I agree with you that several parts are too long and others too short. The movie should have taken much more breath for the early episodes on Barsoom to make them really epic. Rushing through this plot is already a bad service, but even worse is the fact that Stanton interrupts his tale with scenes from Zodanga showing Sab Than and Matai Shang explaining their evil plans. If all that exposition was really needed, it should have been done by Dejah instructing Carter or the Thark council.
    After that the movie should have paid more attention to Burroughs’ secondary themes, for example the fact that Barsoom is a dying planet. It seems we must take this fact from the words of Matai Shang, in some of his better lines, because otherwise from the movie you couldn’t tell. We found streams of water and we didn’t even question why! If at least the flying machines were real ships with water-turned-air-propellers we could ask and learn how the planet lost its oceans! Or why Helium and Zodanga are fighting for the scarce water in the remaining canals! Maybe they left the atmosphere factory for the sequel, as the right cliffhanger for episode III, which wouldn’t be a bad idea. But in the meantime we are left with the impression that absolutely nothing helps us understand how it may feel to live on a dying planet. Costner’s Sioux were much more a dying nation than these Tharks, who don’t even appear as nomads. The only sense of doom in Stanton’s movie comes from Matai Shang’s power schemes, which are used to explain almost everything.
    Even Burroughs most important theme, the conflict between scientific knowledge and religious believes is treated poorly here. Stanton’s movie has it somehow, at least in a few lines, but sadly it remains anemic and without representatives. On one side because Matai Shang shows from the first second that he is a religious leader who has no religion at all. And on the opposite side because poor Dejah Thoris is left to do all the science alone. She is president of the Helium Scientific Society, alright, but where are the scientists? Give her at least two or three researchers to support her cause. In his later novels Burroughs introduced the slightly mad scientist Ras Thavas who could have been turned into an excellent antagonist for Matai Shangs’s Therns.
    A good story lives also from a wider range of secondary characters: minor antagonists and sympathetic sidekicks surrounding the leaders. In this movie everything has been cut to minimum instead: Helium is made of no more than three persons, Thark is two male and two female, Thern is one leader plus his anonymous agents and Zodanga appears even as a one-person nation. One of Sab Than’s finer moments, that made him look more like a jeddak, was when he finally got some opposition from one of his generals. I immediately named him Zat Arras, because I was desperately looking for someone recognizable in those faceless Zodangan masses. At least Helium had Kantos Kan, but where was his interaction with Tardos Mors? Ciaran Hinds was really wasted in this film.
    A final flaw of the movie is the solution of the plot, which is left to, guess who, again Matai Shang who stupidly tells all his plans to Carter before sending him back to Earth. Sorry, but we have seen that far too often in mediocre sci-fi adventures: the bad guy brawling about his evil deeds!
    In conclusion, we find a movie with excellent settings, but missing on essential themes of the main plot, because the protagonists are forced to chase after the secret of the Therns, which wasn’t in the original story. The inclusion of the Therns in the first movie was a good idea, no question bout that, but Carter and Thoris are spending all their precious time and energy on this quest. With a scientific assistant for Dejah, this guy could have found out something by himself, thus leaving more time for the princess and her hero to develop their own relations.

  4. Brian says

    It was an excellent movie! Especially if you have read the books. I read them a couple of times a long long time ago. I admit it did not follow the book so closely but it did capture the spirit. Lynn Collins was a great Dejah Thoris, she is completely beautiful as the role requires.

  5. Robert says

    I thorougly enjoyed the movie. Unlike most ridiculous CGI movies, it actually has a plot with plenty of action, romnce and humor. The audience I was with clapped at its end. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance. You’ll probably like it.

  6. Brandon says

    I really liked the movie. Unlike the hype around how bad this film done last week in the box office, I went and seen it and when I left the movie theater, I left angry that people bashed this movie. I thought it was like watching star wars and the stargate movie rolled up into one. What was not to like? I hope they make a sequel which I’m sure they won’t now, but you never know? Look at tron:legacy! Loved it too.

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