On top of making back a gargantuan, near quarter of a billion dollar budget, John Carter isn’t exactly the easiest sell in the world even by mega-blockbuster standards. It’s extremely literate to the point where it just might alienate audiences looking for average escapist fare. It also feels earnestly like a script that could’ve been written around the same time that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of influential sci-fi books were published. For fans of westerns and smart science fiction, this film might be a genre lover’s dream come true, but for audiences who don’t wish to pay extremely close attention, this could be as torturous as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Based mostly on Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, former Civil War veteran and mourning widower John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transplanted to the famed red planet after a run in with an alien in a cave made entirely of gold. Upon his arrival, he’s uneasily welcomed by the leader of a race of aliens known as the Tharks, who find themselves in a state of societal disrepair. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) finds his ruling power challenged thanks to his allegiance to his heretical daughter (Samantha Morton), while their world is under attack from “red men” (a.k.a. other humans) and an evil former human soldier (Dominic West) and an emissary of the world’s goddess (Mark Strong) who are bent on global domination through the use of a powerful super weapon. It’s up to Carter and a human princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to unite the humans and the Tharks to destroy a common enemy and save the world they all know as Barsoom.
That lengthy plot description only really skims the surface of what director and former Pixar animator Andrew Stanton has crafted here. It all works out in the wash thanks to a tight script (from Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon), but it’s hard to deny that John Carter is overstuffed even when drawn out to nearly two and a half hours. It wouldn’t surprise me if the DVD release includes a far longer cut of the film.
Three separate and clunky openings are needed to flesh out the backstory (on top of two endings, one of which reverts back to one of the three beginnings), and the film has such rich detail and faithfulness to the spirit of it’s source material that it’s top heavy at times. The relationships between characters are explained only once, and very briefly to get on with the story. On top of that, the Tharks speak their own language, and even once it’s translated into English for Carter and the audience, they still use slang, colloquialisms, and scientific terms unique to their planet. If you aren’t paying attention, you probably won’t know if they are referring to a planet, a person, or just speaking off the cuff to each other. Let your attention span waver for a second, and you might be left behind.
Having said all that, every penny of the film’s budget is up there on screen with dazzling action sequences that blow away anything in the Star Wars prequels. There’s more than enough spectacle to break up the wealth of exposition, but to Stanton’s credit he makes the audience work to get to it. He shows just as strong of a visual eye here as he did in his animation work, even if the film still feels like it’s being edited as if it were an animated film.
The cast also adds quite a bit to the proceedings. Dafoe, Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church (as Tars’ chief rival) are never glimpsed on screen, but they’re still allowed to give fully realized performances. Collins bucks the usual “princess in distress” conventions by playing her role as strong and morally ambiguous as possible. And even though the film’s villains have some really poorly rationalized motives, West and Strong have their share of great moments.
In the lead, however, Kitsch proves that he’s the real deal. Carter starts the film as a solemn man speaking in monotones and lost in his own grief, but Kitsch wisely makes Carter’s transition to an unlikely hero gradual instead of making him a macho John Wayne type the second he gets to Mars.
John Carter might not be the blockbuster Disney needs it to be, but it has all the markings of a film that will be reclaimed by fans a decade from now. It might not be the next Star Wars, but through the right eyes it could be the next Dune or Buckaroo Banzai. Something that mainstream audiences never fully grasped upon it’s original release, but is heralded by genre fans for making bold, unconventional choices. The effort definitely makes it to the screen in smart and thrilling fashion. It’s assuredly the smartest mainstream sci-fi epic in years, which will make it candy to some and poison to others. Personally, despite its faults, I thought it was pretty sweet.
Be sure to come back tomorrow for our interview with John Carter star Taylor Kitsch!