Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is often spectacular, with stunning action and thrilling moments. It’s a film that captures the pulpy, swashbuckling sensibilities of Edgar Rice Burroughs while updating much of the whiz bang for an audience a century older than the original novels. In fact the film is so good, so close to great, that it’s incredibly frustrating when it can’t quite get there.
First, what works. Lynn Collins is magnificent as Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Rarely has a female character like this been seen in a boy-centric blockbuster; Dejah is a scientist as well as a princess, and a fierce warrior as well as a totally sexy bombshell. A whole generation will have their puberties kick started by Lynn Collins in this film. The pulp sensibilities of Burroughs included more than a little bit of fantasy sexuality (something George Lucas bleached out of too much of our post-Star Wars scifi and fantasy), and Collins is volcanic in her sexuality. But that doesn’t define the character, who feels fully realized and true. What I like best about Dejah Thoris is that her ass-kicking side doesn’t make her un-femme, and her toughness doesn’t make her any less humanly vulnerable. Imagine Princess Leia without Carrie Fisher’s boobs taped down or Sarah Connor without the masculinity and you begin to get the picture. Dejah Thoris is the best female character in science fiction/fantasy cinema since Ripley.
What’s more, Collins gets the tone of the film perfectly. She plays it just big enough, with a slightly theatrical Shakespearean broadness, to have fun while also taking it seriously. Her introduction has her speaking right into the camera, intoning a speech about saving the city of Helium from invaders, but she immediately breaks and looks away and we realize this isn’t some kind of David Lynch narration nonsense, it’s the princess practicing her words to herself. This epitomizes the tone of the film, a movie where the self-serious stuff is always undercut by warmth and humor.
It’s a Pixar tone, essentially, which makes sense as that’s from whence Stanton hails. You can see lots of Pixar stuff in this movie; there’s a scene early on where Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter is captured by Union soldier Bryan Cranston and he tries to escape as Cranston delivers exposition. Each attempt goes wrong, and is seamlessly edited together in a funny bit of of business that also gets across plot information.
Woola definitely has his roots in Stanton’s Pixar background. Next to Dejah Thoris, Woola is my favorite part of John Carter, which amazed me as I expected to hate him. He’s a Calot, a six-legged Martian dog-thing who is John Carter’s faithful and sort of goofy companion. But he’s not just a silly sidekick; Woola kicks ass in a fight, and his semi-silly attitude never skews the tone into camp. Woola never farts or steps in poop. He’s funny and he’s sweet and he’s incredible in action - he’s the new R2D2.
Stanton isn’t trapped in an animated mode, though, and there’s no question as to his chops as a live action director. The film is impeccably made on a technical level, and Stanton’s action scenes are incredible. Like fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird, Stanton is given to a more classical style of shooting, and his action scenes are clear and well-planned. He knows where to put his camera, and he knows when to cut and why. He’s not shaking his camera around for effect, and he’s not blitzing us with edits. That extends to most of the film; in many ways this feels like an aesthetic companion to War Horse, another movie that looked to old fashioned filmmaking for its style. Here it’s David Lean’s epics, infused with a pulp grit and a modern buzz.
Some of the stuff that Stanton pulls off in John Carter is mind-blowing. There are a few sequences that feel simply classic, like we’ll be referring to them for years to come. There’s one scene, where John Carter stands alone (well, with Woola) against a rampaging army of nine foot tall, four armed Tharks, that is an all-timer. This will be on Stanton’s reel for the rest of his life. If John Carter is David Lean doing scifi pulp, this is the movie’s ‘No prisoners’ moment.
Even with all of these superlatives, John Carter ends up being a mixed experience for me. There are two big strikes against the movie, two things that threaten time and again to rip me away from Barsoom: the story and Taylor Kitsch.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first John Carter book, A Princess of Mars, as a series of cliffhanger installments. There’s not much of a narrative throughline to the book, more just a series of events. Working with Marc Andrews and Michael Chabon, Stanton has managed to give John Carter more structure while maintaining that cliffhanger appeal, but the group of writers has done so in an overcomplicated way. On Barsoom - as Mars is known to the people who live there - a civil war rages. The mobile city-state of Zodanga is at war with the peaceful, progressive city-state of Helium. Both cities are filled with human-like, if slightly tanned, people. The war is at a crossroads when strange beings known as Therns get involved; they give Zodanga’s ruler, the brutish Sab Than (Dominic West) an unstoppable weapon known as the Ninth Ray. The Therns, who are hidden from everyone, manipulate the wars on Mars for their own nefarious ends while setting their sights on Earth as their next target. Spelled out here it’s not overwhelming, but as parceled out in the story it’s needlessly complex. And that’s without the side stories, including the battle for supremacy among the savage Tharks, which don’t elegantly line up with the main narrative as I would have liked.
On top of that, the entire first act is given over to lots of useless plot mechanics involving John Carter on Earth. A veteran of the Civil War, Carter is headed out West to find his fortune, having lost his family in a tragedy. There’s a bunch of hullabaloo there which adds nothing, and all of this is recounted via flashback through the memoir of John Carter - which is being read by his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
There’s a lot going on in John Carter, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s supposed to be important and what’s background color. And the connective tissue between all of this stuff is thin, lending the movie a sense of disconnected scenes placed one after another. There’s the evidence of some editing being done and character moments being elided to get from point A to point B and keep the engine humming. John Carter feels like it could have used another solid draft.
Even with that the biggest problem is probably Taylor Kitsch. The poor guy is simply miscast as a Civil War vet. In the early scenes he’s wearing a fake beard, which is obviously spirit gummed to his face, and he’s about as convincing in the role of a rough, grizzled man of darkness as that beard. Everything about Kitsch is modern. Even his acting style is completely of the modern post-Dean and Brando school. While everyone else is bringing some theatrical flair to their performances, Kitsch is grim, serious and internal. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just wrong, and he keeps standing out.
These frustrations don’t keep John Carter from being very good. There’s much I loved in the film; the world of the Tharks is presented without any of the noble savage bullshit that James Cameron slathered on them when he stole them for the N’avi. The movie is unabashed in its embrace of fantasy, and anyone who questions scientific aspects of the movie will hate the film (and will also be an asshole). John Carter is fun, first and foremost, even with the unwieldy structural issues. This is a movie made by an intelligent adult who is touch with his inner nine year old boy, who understands the thrill of watching men leap through the air and slice through an army of enemies, the joy of our hero tunneling through the body of a monster and throwing men to their deaths and winning the beautiful princess - and who presents these things in a way that’s artistically satisfying and often emotionally satisfying.
I didn’t love John Carter, but I liked it a whole lot. What it gets right it gets right with wonderful gusto. And what it doesn’t get right... well, there are about ten more books to adapt, and I’d like to see Andrew Stanton have another go at it. I think next time he could do it perfectly.
And for the record, this film should have been called John Carter and the Princess of Mars - not only is that title more evocative, but it gives Dejah Thoris, the best cinematic female genre character in decades, her proper due.