Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Stanton
By Roderick Heath
I take the popular dismissal of John Carter a little bit personally. When I was young, I loved films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels—any version of Tarzan, of course, but also the lively battery of Burroughs-derived films made by British director Kevin Connor in the mid ’70s. I owe a considerable amount of the growth of my love for the fantastic genres to those movies, and therefore to Burroughs. Yet I’ve read a lot of commentaries blaming the relatively poor box-office performance of John Carter, the new Disney-produced, $250 million movie taken from Burroughs’ beloved, much-imitated Barsoom series, on its being adapted from esoteric material, as if a great bulk of what is popularly thought of as science fiction doesn’t derive specifically from Burroughs’ ideas, and as if his tales don’t offer a wealth of interest for the fantastic filmmaker and filmgoer. Of course, those ropy old flicks I loved didn’t cost such colossal sums of money, but attaching discussions of the decadence of modern Hollywood to its less successful products is, in a strange way, still playing Hollywood’s game, considering the way the industry and its pseudo-populist champions wield the successful ones, even the ones that are terrible, with bludgeoning contempt.
When Hollywood is starved for strong stories to tell, as it certainly is now, one way to get out of that slump is to dig back into the vast trove of great material provided by scifi, fantasy, and other genre writers over the past century, most of it largely ignored in favour of shallow appropriations and constant recycling. John Carter’s failure to connect is especially bitter, from this film viewer’s perspective, as blockbuster cinema has stooped to adapting board games and fun park rides rather than solidly conceived tales. John Carter is weighed down with a painfully bland and obfuscating title, one which hardly solves the presumed problem of esoteric material and betrays the real sensibility of pulp thrills and soaring space opera that the film itself communicates, in what is nonetheless one of the most purely enjoyable, rousing, and dashing examples of big-budget cinema I’ve seen lately, perhaps indeed the best since the last The Lord of the Rings film. It’s Avatar without the new-age ponderousness, Star Wars with more ideas and strangeness, Flash Gordon with a deeper hero. Although it lasts more than two hours, it moves with the rapidity of a serial from the 1930s.
Director Andrew Stanton does not defeat all of the familiar problems of modern blockbuster cinema, which resists that personal sense of the mythic that made, say, the early Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman movies so particular for their makers and audiences. The first half-hour of John Carter, whilst doing nothing especially wrong, does nonetheless wrestle with problems of exposition and locating the emotional gateway into the tale—vital elements of the fantastic drama that many modern franchise flicks treat increasingly like chores, tossing them away in rushed, voiceover-laden prologues. Star Taylor Kitsch, who made his name in the TV show Friday Night Lights, is a competent and likable but also frustratingly unspecific leading man, in a role that needs wit, gumption, and a real air of both grievous hurt and eccentric heroism.
But John Carter sports a screenplay cowritten by Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon, who has long burrowed into the serious underside of the pulp pantheon. They infuse John Carter, as it evolves along with the world it portrays, with a depth of feeling and crowded panoply of detail that soon takes on a feverishly enjoyable aura. The script expands on and conflates Burroughs’ original tales in numerous ways, particularly in the wraparound narrative that frames A Princess of Mars, the first of Burroughs’ novels set on the red planet its inhabitants call Barsoom. The film conflates the young first-person narrator whose uncle John Carter is in the book with Burroughs himself, and he becomes party not merely to Carter’s supposedly posthumous tale, but also to a clever plot that pays off in the very conclusion. Carter’s experiences gold prospecting and his attempts to survive frontier dangers are, likewise, recast to reflect the more exotic, off-world scenes he will encounter as he shifts from ethnic conflict here on Earth to those on Barsoom.
Stanton, who, of course, has come to features after several hugely successful animated films and moves immediately in the footsteps of Brad Bird’s success with Mission: Impossible 4 (2010), retains an animator’s necessary sense of pace and humour: indeed, an early series of gags that Stanton pulls, as Carter keeps trying to escape the custody of army officer Powell (Bryan Cranston), would be funnier if rendered in the quicksilver technique of animation rather than in bruising three dimensions. Stanton does, however, display a remarkably fleet-footed capacity to keep his story and visuals in motion, with a narrative that threatens at times to be top-heavy, and after that initial uncertainty, Stanton nimbly keeps pace with our hero’s efforts to keep an even keel as he’s presented with multifarious strangeness.
As Burroughs learns through the journal Carter leaves him along with his whole, vast estate, Carter survived the Civil War where, serving for the Confederates, he emerged as a hero, only to find his wife and child had been killed in raids. To make his fortune and leave behind the humanity he now detests, he goes prospecting for gold in Arizona, where he is picked up by the bullying Powell, who wants to force him to help fight against the Apaches. John resists and escapes. When Powell and his men give chase, they instead earn the wrath of an Apache band, and in the ensuing fight, Powell is wounded. John drags him to the cave, known as the Spider cave because of a motif carved within, where he’s been finding gold. As John ventures into the recess, a mysterious being beams into the cavern, and John shoots him. An amulet about the dead man’s neck is actually the control device for the wormhole that opens and sends John, or rather a kind of facsimile of John, across space to the Martian hinterland.
John finds himself in the midst of a knotty civil war that’s been engulfing Barsoom for centuries, between the kingdoms of reddish-skinned humans, Helium and Zodanga, and the green-skinned, horn-faced, four-armed Tharks, amongst whom John first finds himself captive. The Tharks, formerly a sophisticated civilisation, are now violent and degenerate. John soon discovers he has great strength and a talent for leaping incredible distances because of Mars’ low gravity, traits that endear him to the Thark king Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe). Tars, more emotional and open-minded than the other Tharks, knows that the much-victimised Sola (Samantha Morton), to whom John is mockingly given as a baby to raise, is actually his daughter, unusual knowledge when most Tharks are adopted indiscriminately after hatching from eggs.
When circumstances force Tars to take John and Sola’s side, he is toppled by nasty warrior Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, Helium is at risk of finally losing to Zodanga because its king, Sab Than (Dominic West), possesses an incredible new weapon that fires the elusive and powerful “ninth ray” given to him by a race called the Therns, one of whom John killed in the cave. The Therns pose as immortal and priestly, but they actually control fantastic technology, and they’re really stage-managing a victory for Zodanga which will lead to the final deterioration of Barsoom, an act of entropy which the Therns feed off. For a cruelly exact final victory, the lead Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), instructs Sab to marry the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), scientist daughter of Helium’s king Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), and then kill her, an act that will both cement his hegemony and, with Dejah’s attempts to master the ninth ray coming too close for the Therns’ comfort, eliminating her dangerous intelligence. When Dejah tries to escape Sab, his flying ship catches hers above the Thark city.
It’s in the action sequence that follows that John Carter truly snaps into full working order. John, enraged to see a human woman being terrorised, springs into action and devastates Sab’s warriors and ships with his unbound earthly talents like Errol Flynn slipped free of earthbound laws, ripping loose in sheer spectacle with dashes of physical comedy and surrealist absurdity, as John’s sudden superhuman prowess swings between awesome competence and jarring clumsiness, and Sab nettles under Shang’s restraining influence. Again, Stanton’s background in animation, where the laws of physics can be bent easily, comes out here to more perfect effect, and the film retains a visual fluidity that makes sense of crowded scenes of action. Likewise Stanton, in a fashion familiar for animators, has a gift for finding the appealing quality in seemingly grotesque things, like the wailing, slimy Thark babies who cuddle up to John lovingly in their lair, and a super-fast creature that looks like a lump of silly putty with legs, placed menacingly on guard outside the Thark nursery, but which proves to be essentially a weird kind of dog. When John defends it from being beaten by the Tharks, it becomes his inseparable companion.
Stanton and his production team seem to have carefully parsed old comics, book covers, and illustrations for the conceptual universe, combining elements of steampunk and retro-futurist wonder with the edge of oriental exoticism so common in that old artwork—Mameluke guns, neo-Trojan armour, and Scheherazade dresses. Zadonga, a mobile city that moves along on gigantic crawling mechanics, is an almost casually employed wonder of design and execution teeming with detail, and so is the great cathedral of Helium where gigantic rotating lens and arcane religious ritual converge. But perhaps Stanton’s most impressive sequence of visual control comes when Matai Shang, having taken John prisoner, leads him through the city’s crowds and explains his plans with casual arrogance, whilst changing forms, forcing John and the audience to move with the flow of convenient guises.
Keeping a plot that is complicated less by intricacies of action than by an array of competing sides is difficult, but John Carter is never less than entirely coherent, even in the multilayered battle that wraps it up, something like genius compared with the dizzying incomprehensibility of the Transformers films, where even simple brawls are impossible to follow. The greatest fantasy-adventure films tend to have an elegiac sensibility, a sense of space that allows time to breathe in the landscapes and drama with hues of awe and tragedy, but John Carter largely moves too fast for that. Such films also usually tend to have a breath of the otherworldly, the exotic, and the erotic, for example, the gleefully perverse scene in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) where the narrative takes time out to portray the seedy old sultan stabbed to death by the alluring facsimile of id-filtered femininity provided by the evil sorcerer. The erotic only gets a look in here in the alluring fleshiness of Dejah’s apparel, and even that’s pushing it for a Disney film, but there’s an underpinning of emotional seriousness to the tale that means that it never descends into shallow pictorial splendour. This quality is especially embodied by Collins’ breathy earnestness as Dejah in a strong performance that elegantly and effortlessly bestrides the schism of luscious physicality and intelligent conscientiousness so well she subverts any notion of a disparity. Her radiant humanity contrasts the coldly calculating Matai Shang, well-played by Strong, a figure whose affectation of incorporeal imperative and godlike power hides a cynical program of profit by exploitation and degradation, an idea with interesting resonances.
Stanton admirably tries to wield a certain amount of darkness of the kind that Disney have usually tried to keep out of their movies since the bad old days of The Black Hole (1979) and Dragonslayer (1982), from the sorry spectacle of Sola being branded—she has so many brand marks there’s no room left on her body—for her perceived transgressions, to the marks of visceral tragedy John carries upon his soul. Whilst the pitch of the depressed and disillusioned war veteran has become a tired motif in action-adventure movies, like the pseudo-historical variation on this theme, The Last Samurai (2003), Stanton wrings it until it pays off in a legitimately great sequence in which John, refusing to be chased further by an army of evil Tharks called up by Shang, and to give Dejah and Sola a chance to get away, launches himself into the alien horde and hacks it to pieces with astounding fury. Stanton presents a dialectic montage, cutting between the action and John’s memory of coming home and finding his house destroyed and his wife’s corpse, and then burying her; Stanton aims here for the furthermost reaches of emotive grandeur, coalescing old trauma, new love, and innate heroism into a singular whirlwind of expressive carnage.
One distinct pleasure of John Carter is indeed that it looks and sounds like all that money finished up on screen: the film’s special effects have a rich, beautiful intricacy that suggest that CGI-based cinema might only now be starting to come into its own, particularly wondrous when John, escaping Shang’s clutches, flees in one of the Zadonga flying machines that look like sculptures of large insects fashioned out of Victoriana crystal and brass, avoiding the city’s colossal motivators. The fact that the Barsoom tales have been so endlessly filched by moviemakers over the years, including Avatar, Star Wars, and Flash Gordon, and the fact that the film sticks firmly to some familiar templates—the scenes where hero John and Dejah wander in the desert bickering resemble the dreaded Prince of Persia (2009), for instance—do mean that to a large extent it can never feel entirely fresh. But John Carter outdoes the many films it resembles simply by doing such things better and by keeping its feet planted firmly in the legitimate quality of its source material.
Burroughs’ stories, like most prototypes, were joyous in having few set rules for how they should proceed; thus, they could be both romantic adventures and speculative fiction all at once, and something of their fulminating strangeness makes it into the movie, with its breathless procession of alien customs and reproduction habits and intricate religious sensibility. Just as The Land that Time Forgot and its 1974 film version offers up an old canard—a lost island populated with dinosaurs—but adds a notional interest in evolution and presented a microcosmic version of it that proves to have a strange, deistic motivation behind it, so, too, is there substance under all John Carter’s freewheeling invention. There’s an environmental message, most obviously, as the wicked Zardongans consume endlessly and contribute to their planet’s decay, but also an engaging amount of space for probing the nature of emotion in species that do not reproduce like humans, as in the Tharks, and a note of poetically opposite senses of wonder for John and Dejah, whose different kinds of ships sail different kinds of oceans, both equally strange and impossible for them to imagine. John trails faintly religious associations, as a messiah with the initials JC prone to resurrections and stepping in and out his corporeal form, but his enemies are false deists who visit people and guide them on to a destiny which is designed to be self-destructive to suit the Therns’ needs.
And perhaps that’s the real reason why nobody knew what to do with John Carter: it doesn’t carefully and neatly beat one essential theme into the ground like most of these colossal blockbusters, but serves as a big, tottering, server platter for a truly complex universe. It helps that Stanton avoids belabouring things that other directors might stretch out, with an occasional anticlimactic flourish, as when John challenges Tal Hajus for the kingship of the Tharks: Tal Hajus hurls himself down from on high, John leaps up, and in the next moment Tal’s head is rolling away on the sand. Similarly near-satirical is a subsequent sequence where the Tharks make a grand charge to the rescue of Dejah, only to arrive in Zadonga and find the wedding is taking place in Helium, and Tars Tarkas can only express frustration by slapping John in the back of the head. Later, when the Tharks have to do something they fear and loathe—trying to fly—the inevitable last-minute arrival sees Tars Tarkus crash-land through the cathedral wall and groan his pleasure that’s over with.
But the film’s set-piece action scenes are doozies, like the aforementioned flying chase, and John, in space opera’s compulsory arena battle, taking on colossal blind white apes, swinging huge chunks of stone on the end of chain to pulverise them, and Sola, finally angered to breaking point, tossing her constant foe Sarkoja (Polly Walker) into the arena for the fleeting pleasure of seeing her stomped. The climax is a wild melee as both John and Sab are targeted for assassination by Matai in the midst of a grand battle, and John tries to stop the Thern villain from escaping. Even after the story seems to be over, and John marries and beds Dejah, Matai’s traps ensnare him and exile him back to Earth, which seems now a cold and dreary exile for which his only answer is an intricately woven plan that involves his young nephew. John Carter, or John Carter of Mars as finally and properly amended, is one of the most satisfying rides I’ve had in a movie theatre in recent years. I do hope more of you go to see it, not because Disney needs the money, but because of a selfish personal motive: I want to see more movies like this one.