It’s been a while since I’ve written consistently. A combination of personal and professional issues – not to mention the six months I spent stranded in Canada for trying to bring black market poutine over the border – kind of convinced me it wasn’t important. I have enough to do already. I’m tired. Working in a cubicle sucks. I’m not getting any younger. Then again, I’m tired. Working in a cubicle sucks. I’m not getting any younger. So, I took a week off from work to gather my thoughts, and concluded that I in fact had an opposite problem than the one I’d initially determined.
It wasn’t that I had too much to do. I wasn’t doing enough. I felt unfulfilled and suffocated by life because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I decided to start making the most of things with whatever time I have left. I decided to put everything I had into everything, and thereby guarantee a return on my investment. So obviously, I decided to watch John Carter.
Yes, John Carter, the controversial 2012 film starring Taylor Kitsch, based on the writings of famed author Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a film that was roundly shit on by almost all seven billion of this planet’s inhabitants. And yet, it made $283 million worldwide. That’s hardly a runaway (or even walkaway) hit, but it does mean that this movie clearly resonated with someone. Still, John Carter managed to take a little heat off Kevin Costner and Waterworld, by joining the rarefied list of movies that have inspired a thriving online community of hatred.
But…yeah, about Waterworld. It is by no means a great film, but it’s actually a pretty serviceable action flick in its own right. If you watched it for the first time, unaware of the baggage it carried, you would most likely shrug, call it a win and get on with your life. It’s human nature to exaggerate, because it draws attention. And God knows there’s something special about belonging to a group of people who all hate the same thing. But experience tells me that if I look beyond the hyperbole, I’ll probably find that there’s more to the story.
That’s definitely the case with John Carter, the blandly named 2012 film from Disney that popular opinion tells us is not just Worse than Cancer, but Worse Than Nazi Cancer. I’m going to go ahead and reveal now that in my opinion, this is not a terrible film at all. In fact I really liked it, and am a little sad there’s never going to be a sequel. But in many ways, John Carter is also an aggressively unremarkable film. And unfortunately it’s mostly in some of the super important areas that make a good film worth watching, like “story” and “character arc”.
In other words, you would think the fourth most expensive movie ever made would have a super-kick-ass-awesomely-wicked story, right?
Then again, Spider-Man 3 comes in at number six, and John Carter is a damn sight better than that film, so I guess “rank”is a murky indicator. Still, it seems to me that bad press is a cancer – perhaps even a Nazi Cancer – that once contracted, kills quickly. The sad truth is that if someone had just figured out a way to make this movie for less fucking money, it might have been a huge success. Not one of the six Star Wars films made by George Lucas cost more than $115 million.
Not ONE. What the hell, John Carter?
I don’t know what kind of accounting fuckery led to such a ginormous blunderbuss of a budget, but the last time I opened Quicken was also the last time I openly cried, so I guess I have no room to talk shit about how Disney spends their money. Plus, as we’ll discuss shortly, every penny of that cash made it onscreen, so at least there’s that.
So if it’s ok with you, this review is going to stick to the merits – and not the finances – of John Carter. And no, I have not read the original Edgar Rice Burroughs material. It’s on my to-do list but, I’ll be honest, I’m in no hurry. In fact, I’ll just come right out and say there’s a less than 25 percent chance I’ll get to it. In fact, as long as The Expanse keeps happening, you can go ahead and cut that in half.
Next up, I like the fact that John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) himself is a Confederate war veteran with a chip on his shoulder. In this day and age of hyperbolic outrage and oppressive political correctness, this could have been a problem. But the screenplay (credited to director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and author Michael Chabon, whose books you should totally read) sidesteps this by 1) Making John Carter a wandering loner mourning the loss of his family a-la Mad Max, and 2) Making the Union army look a lot like the Germans in Hogan’s Heroes.
And thank God, because it gets the whole “is it racist if I root for a Confederate guy?” issue out of the way, if you’re the kind of person to whom it matters. It also allows for a considerably enhanced level of tension and humor when Carter is subsequently tested by a Union general named Powell (Bryan Cranston).
Powell wants Carter to join the Union Army and help him fight the Apache Nation. Carter, because he’s that whole Jason Statham “bad ass who works alone” kind of guy, promptly beats the shit out of everyone and escapes – multiple times (this might be the most purely entertaining scene in the entire film). We also learn that Carter has a soft spot for the Apache – although we never learn why – and tries his best to defuse the conflict. But because this is an action movie everyone starts shooting at each other, and Carter finds himself trapped in a cave with Powell.
And then, in what feels like a completely arbitrary series of events, a mysterious alien appears out of thin air, surprises Carter, gets murdered by Carter, and then drops a strange medallion on the ground for Carter to pick up. As soon as Carter touches it and repeats the last word the Alien spoke -“Barsoom” – he’s whisked away to a desert in the middle of nowhere.
Spoiler alert – John Carter is on Mars.
In what might be the second most entertaining scene in the entire film, Carter takes some time to get himself acquainted with the low gravity, but loses track of the medallion. Eventually he runs into a tribe of natives, who happen to be eight foot tall green creatures whose males and females are rather difficult to tell apart. They call themselves “Tharks”, and they turn out to be very interested in John Carter. Remember that being from Earth, Carter has what amounts to super strength when he’s on Mars. He’s able to leap high into the air and when the time comes, fight dozens of people at once. That turns out to be a good thing, as the Tharks are not the most dangerous thing on Mars…
…or as the natives call it – Barsoom.
I should stop here and point out that it drives me nuts when I’m watching an expensive movie and, try as I might, I can’t see where all that money is onscreen. I can assure you – this is absolutely NOT the case with John Carter. The Tharks are – in a word – amazing. Yes, I know they’re CGI and somehow my eyes can see that, but they are convincing enough that I eventually forgot altogether that they weren’t real. And remember when I said there were greater dangers on Mars than giant Space Apaches™?
Well, the planet is also inhabited by humans – or at least what look like humans – only with extremely inhuman suntans.
These people fly around in what you’d get if Jack Sparrow’s boat had sex with the Solar Sailer from Tron – and it looks spectacular onscreen. Whatever your thoughts are on the rest of the film, the one criticism you can’t level at John Carter is that is doesn’t look good. There is a level of visual immersion in the Martian culture that makes the film as visually effective as any of the Star Wars films. How ironic then, that the movie based on a book that served as part of the inspiration for Star Wars would ask you to spend two hours and ten minutes with a story that feels so goddamn quaint.
The human-looking Martians live in what appear to be the only two cities on the planet, “Helium” and “Zodanga”. Helium is led by the noble Thardos (Ciarán Hinds), who wishes to live in peace and find someone to marry his hot daughter Deja (Lynn Collins). Zodanga is led by the evil Sab Than (Dominic West), who wants to take over the world and get busy with Deja – and not necessarily in that order. Because of this the two cities are at war, and the Thark are caught in the middle when Sab Than’s pursuit of Deja sends her falling – literally – into John Carter’s arms.
Hey…wait a minute. On Earth, John Carter is a Civil War veteran who happens to sympathize with the plight of the Native American. Now he’s on Mars, in the middle of another civil war, trying to help another indigenous people, and save a beautiful princess from having to marry some Royal Ugly Dude! It’s the same thing!
It’s a Space Allegory!
Well, yes…and no.
I touched on this a moment ago, but one thing John Carter does well is make Martian culture feel alien. We’re never told why there appear to be humans there as well as Thark, but what little we see of their ways is intriguing. I guess it’s close enough to describe the Thark as “Space Apaches”. As far as the Zadongans and…um…Heliumites go…whatever you want to call them, they come across as mashup of 18th century Britain and ancient Rome having a party on Mars and leaving their kids behind.
So if there’s any historical parallel here, it is a highly muted one. For the most part, the 800 pound gorilla of social commentary is sidestepped, an I sense a conscious decision to address the subject in a way that is limited to vague allusion.
That’s unfortunate because, like I said, there’s not a lot of meat on this story. Underneath the gloss, John Carter is a fairly conventional, turn of the 20th Century hero-villain-damsel yarn. You could sell it in the Old West, the post apocalypse, King Arthur’s court, or Luke Skywalker’s backyard; only the names would change. Yes, there’s a suggestion of rich back story, but that does not an actual story make. And yes, it’s cool that Dejah is more than just a pretty face – she’s proficient with both pen and sword. But this too is nothing new, and for all its visual prowess John Carter leaves barely treads water – from a narrative standpoint.
For instance, there’s an attempt to weave Edgar Rice Burroughs himself into his own story. It’s a cutesy trick that adds an unnecessary layer of confusion to the story, and that screen time might have been better spent sprucing up the primary plot. To wit – Sab Than is getting some pretty serious help from a powerful race of beings called the Thern (remember the medallion-carrying alien John Carter shot in the face back on Earth?), but it’s never made clear why a high rolling gang of interstellar bad-asses even bothered to meddle in this backwater conflict over a girl in a brass bikini in the first place.
It feels like a plot thread left open for a planned sequel, which results in long stretches of story that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Sadly, this is the downfall of John Carter. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, derived from fertile (if obscure) source material, but that’s kind of it. With all due respect to John Stanton, it might have been wiser for Disney to have assigned this film to a director whose credits included more substantial fare than Finding Nemo and Wall-E. As enjoyable as those films may have been, making John Carter work well was going to require a daring vision, rather than someone content to play it safe and toe the company line.
And for the record, that’s not a harsh indictment. I appreciate the effort but in the end, the “Half Meta-Burroughs”angle might have been best discarded for something more direct and substantial – for starters.
Is John Carter better than Waterworld? Definitely.
Is it better than Spider-Man 3, or basically any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?
Oh, sweet Christ, yes.
But while “better than shit” is a noble ambition, it’s not really a powerful selling point. And while, as I already admitted, I am far from a financial genius, I feel this is certainly no way to build a franchise. I found the world of Barsoom to be pretty fascinating, and would have loved to see more. A sequel shouldn’t be out of the question, but there’s so much bad juju associated with John Carter that if it happens it will be someone else’s interpretation, and I may well be too old to care.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."