The uneven red planet: “John Carter”

March 12, 2012

So, John Carter has finally arrived—albeit in a toxic dustcloud of pessimistic expectations and bad press. Well, when you’ve hidden your 250 million dollar movie from critics, I guess you gotta expect that. Likewise, when you pave the way for the film with a cryptic ad campaign that mostly seems to consist of dudes riding big weird animals and depressing music during the preview, and finally retitle the film from John Carter of Mars (riiight, that “of Mars” part was the big problem here), you have to expect that the long knives will be out and rubberneckers will be waiting with baited breath to see the carnage. Well, I hate to break it to you, but while John Carter isn’t a great film, it’s not a trainwreck, either. It’s even pretty good, when it’s not really boring.

So, if you know the basis of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels, then the first half of hour of this movie if going to be pure torture, so lemme try and encapsulate it some: Civil War vet John Carter ends up in a cave which transports him to Mars. There. That wasn’t so hard. But the movie manages to drag this part out a lot longer than necessary. Once on Mars, Carter hooks up with some warlike lizard creatures, and gets befriended by a dog-like reptile. That dog-thing is really cool. You can tell that director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) knows a thing or two about how to keep cute sidekicks from being cloying.

I don't know what these things are, but I want one.

So, things on Mars kinda suck. There’s been a perpetual Civil War that’s pretty much wrecked the planet, and now there are only two city-states left standing. The bad one is called, um, Gozonga (or something like that), and it’s this massive, mobile metropolis that scuttles along the ground and fucks shit up. The good guys live in Helium (heh, that’s an easy one to remember), which stays in one place, the way cities should. As the movie begins a weird race of angel-thingees led by Mark Strong have thrown in with the Gozangan general played by McNulty from The Wire. The angel-thingees have given McNulty a powerful, death-ray kind of weapon that he’s been using to utterly defeat the Helium…Heliumites…Heliumonids…the dudes from Helium.

"C'mon, baby, I was on The Wire...Liberal white people love that show!"

But rather than totally devastate Helium, McNulty offers a truce, on the condition that he marry the Heliumonic Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), thus uniting their two states. Dejah’s father agrees, but she isn’t so thrilled with the idea. Also, she thinks she’s discovered some great, new power source called the Ninth Configuration or something like that. It appears to be the same power the angel-thingees use, but the angel-thingees secretly sabotage her experiment, so, um, that happens. And during this whole chunk of world-building, John Carter is still dicking around with the lizard people. This is also the first point in the movie where you’ll be tempted to shout “Holy fuck, will something please happen!”

"Wait, you don't have houses but you use TELESCOPES?"

Okay, well, Dejah flees McNulty and ends up being rescued by the lizard people in the desert. There she meets John Carter and is suitably impressed by his ability to jump long distances (Mars has lower gravity than Earth, after all) and his shredded physique (CrossFit was apparently pretty big amongst the Confederates) and she’s all like, “Hello, you slab of man-meat, you.” She doesn’t actually say that. She spends a lot of time not believing be comes from another planet, so they end up going on a long trip to some holy place where they discover, like, a star-map or something and then  she believes him. This is the second or third point when you’ll be tempted to shout “Holy fuck, will something please happen!”

Okay, well, finally some stuff does happen and the movie takes some shape, as John Carter begins to fall for Dejah (and why not? She’s played by Lynn Collins) and decides the throw in on her side of the Martian civil war. Of course there’s still some crap to do, but the movie has a lot of fun doing it, and we get a nice satisfying ending that loops back around to that interminable beginning.

"Yeah, I could get used to this."

The biggest hurdle John Carter faces is not that whole “of Mars” part, but of sheer familiarity. If you’ve seen a sci-fi movie in the past century—I mean, a decent sci-fi movie, and not one of those navel-gazing “made while baked on peyote and/or LSD” journey-up-the-butt-fests from the ‘60s and ‘70s like Solaris…basically any sci-fi movie with a laser gun—then you’ve seen some of John Carter. Burroughs was just that influential. Unfortunately, returning to the source doesn’t make the movie seem any less derivative. By the time John Carter gets dragged into an arena to fight weird monsters, all I think was if that Hayden Christensen showed up somebody was getting punched in the ‘nads.

If Jar Jar Binks shows up I am out. Seriously. I am done.

Also like the later Star Wars movies, John Carter has atrocious pacing. The choppiness of my synopsis is only mildly exaggerated. This movie has to cram a lot of action, subplots, and exposition into its 130 minutes, and Stanton and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon don’t quite figure out how to do that and still streamline the plot. For a family film, I can’t imagine any kid under ten being able to sit through the first 40 minutes or so of this movie.

Consider everything this movie has to do: it has to introduce John Carter and his backstory (there’s some claptrap in there about his wife and daughter being killed by, um, Indians? Union soldiers? Tusken Raiders? I dunno, but it’s lame and wastes time), introduce the political situation on Mars, introduce the lizard guys, introduce the angel-thingees, and then set up the fact that Dejah has to marry McNulty. Okay, now these plots have to go someplace. That’s a dense storyline, and not one that would play out well in 130 minutes no matter who was crafting it. To the movie’s credit, it does do a good job of following through on everything it sets up (I’m still not 100% on the angel-thingees or Mark Strong’s plan), but it can’t do that and still keep a decent pace.

It doesn’t help any that John Carter himself isn’t terribly compelling. You get the feeling he’s supposed to be a reckless, adventuring sort, like Indiana Jones, but for most of his time on Mars all he does is grouse about how he doesn’t care about anything that’s going on around him and just wants to go home. Taylor Kitsch, the idiotically-named actor who plays him, is less of a charisma-suck than most of his peer group—think Channing Tatum or Sam Worthington—but he still doesn’t have a lot of presence. This is sort of weird, given how many TV critics have had boners over this guy’s work on Friday Nights Lights (aka “Baywatch for Middle-Aged Women”).

"Mostly, I let my abs do the acting for me."

Those flaws aside, though, John Carter does a pretty good job of entertaining. It’s never dumb, and the action scenes have an old-fashioned charm to them. Stanton brings to this film much of the wry humor that lurked around the edges of Nemo and Wall-E, and it’s always refreshing to get a blockbuster that doesn’t take itself completely seriously.

On top of that some of the visuals are pretty exciting. Okay the Mars location (shot in Utah) is pretty dull—not much you can do about that. But the Martian cities and airships are cool as hell. And while the movie does raise some questions about the technological  advancement of the Martians, it’s not quite as inconsistent or incongruous as, say, the Klingon Empire, where everyone has spaceships and laser guns, but fight with swords anyway.

These things are cool. Like, Star Destroyer cool.

It’s too bad Disney mishandled the promotion of this film as much as they did. It had the potential to be a solid spring action movie, but needed a few more drafts of the screenplay, and some much smarter people flogging it.

[ADDITIONAL NOTE: From what I understand, the Martian culture portrayed in the movie is similar to the one Burroughs created with a couple exceptions. Most notably, Dejah is more alien in the books. At one point she gets pregnant and lays an egg. Given the fact she and John Carter hook up, I think this change was a good idea. Now I’m not opposed to a little interspecies boning—especially if one of those species is green—but I draw the line at having a completely different reproductive system. I am not onboard with that…]

"Why hellooo ladies, I...uh, you don't lay eggs out of those things on your head, do you?"


  1. Just got back from seeing this, and despite my fears, it was well executed and a great red slab of entertainment. And once more I’m impressed by how your reviews refuse to take the path of least resistance and instead blaze a trail of well thought out sense. I’ve followed your stuff for a while now and again I think you nailed a movie once more. It could have done with a lead that ‘popped’ a bit more, I agree he’s no Depp/Sparrow, but I think Kitsch did an OK job. The narrative loop and pay off, though was well worth the slightly drawn out set-up in NYC, and I actually HOPED Anakin had turned up in the (wholly superior) arena scene… just so he could get his whiny arse kicked.

    My only other gripe is I wish Dejah were dressed more like the comic… but it’s Disney, so what ya gonna do. Maybe on the DVD extras…

  2. Thanks for the kind words and for visiting my blog. The movie has actually kind of grown on me in the days since I saw it–especially after reaidng the reporting of how poorly it did at the box office. a movie with scenes like the one when Carter’s airskiff, overloaded with him and the lizard chick and the dog-thing, wobbles to a landing; or when he gets smacked in the head for invading the wrong city doesn’t deserve to be considered a flop.

  3. you the princess on john carter is a perfect match for him i like her.

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