JOHN CARTER (2012)
John Carter has been a long time coming. I can’t think of many other projects that have been in development, almost nonstop, for as long as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romance. The first novel, A Princess of Mars was first serialized in 1912 before its full publication in 1917, and a big-budget film adaptation has been in various stages of development since the 1930s. A surprising list of filmmakers, including Bob Clampett, Ray Harryhausen, John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, and Jon Favreau, were all attached to the adaptation as it passed from studio to studio over the decades until it finally made it to the screen thanks to Disney and Andrew Stanton.*
An unfortunate side-effect of such an influential story taking so long to be filmed is that its innovations can be (and have been) seen as derivative thanks to all of the subsequent science fiction adventures which have “borrowed” plots, themes, and characters from it. It is not an overstatement to say that without John Carter of Mars there would not have been Dune, Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Avatar, or any number of other sci-fi tales. So any accusation that John Carter is derivative or unoriginal has things backwards, and is more than a little unfair.
An entirely different question would be whether this particular film does the source material justice. I, like most who are familiar with the books, was really underwhelmed by Disney’s bland, uninteresting marketing campaign. Luckily, this proved only that Disney had NO CLUE how to sell this movie and did not in any way reflect the quality of Andrew Stanton’s direction or any of the performances.
I don’t think even the most ardent fan of the novels or the film will be upset when I say that this is not an especially deep movie. There is social commentary, etc, but that is all subtextual and is ultimately secondary to its primary focus (like that of its source) – entertainment. It is in this mode that I think John Carter succeeds. Through its performances, production design, and adherence to the spirit (if not the letter) of the novel, John Carter manages to create a tone that is pulpy without seeming retro or dated, and as science fiction, adventure, sword & sorcery, and even romance, I think it mostly hits the right buttons.
Taylor Kitsch defies his last name and delivers a standout performance as the titular character. His casting was one of many reservations I had going in, but I was happily surprised. He ably embodies Carter’s transition from ex-Confederate soldier to interplanetary übermensch. (It doesn’t hurt that he also fills out a barbarian chestplate & loincloth nicely.) I jest, yet there is something to it – not any actor would look equally at home in ex-Confederate/cowboy attire, tailored 19th century suit, and various Martian outfits. Of course, looks aren’t everything, and Kitsch is quite good at transitioning through Carter’s identities as an outlaw, a stranger in a strange land, a warrior, and a lover. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the film actually manages to give the character more dimension than was present in the novel, which was much more manichean in its depiction of its characters and races.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars referenced in the novel’s original title, has her moments, but I found her to be the weak link of the cast. She is best when going between the poise and formalism of her royal upbringing and the charisma and aggression she assumes in combat. Some of the character’s more vulnerable moments were less effective. Of course she, like Kitsch, looks perfect in the role, and is certainly believable as a kind of Helen-esque beauty caught at the center of a war.
Other supporting cast members deliver solid performances. Standouts are Willem Dafoe providing voice and motion capture for the Green Martian warrior Tars Tarkas, Mark Strong as Matai Shang – a key character to a subplot not originally present in the first novel, and Dominic West as the villainous Sab Than. These performers are all supported by gorgeous production design that extends to the costumes, locations, weapons, and vehicles.
The CGI in particular was a welcome surprise. The martian creatures – especially the Green Martians (Tharks) – fit into the world of Mars/Barsoom without having to look photoreal. The filmmakers made a deliberate choice to find a middle ground between realism and the high fantasy style of the various book covers, paintings, and comic books which the John Carter stories have inspired. Is it perfect? Of course not – no CGI is; yet it manages to allow the actors’ performances to show through. It allows live characters to interact relatively believably with CGI characters. And, most importantly, it allowed me as a viewer to be pulled into the story without being distracted by obvious or unsatisfying effects. I found myself to be just as invested in the CGI characters as I was the live action ones – up to and including Carter’s dog-like companion Woola, who could have easily been another Jar-Jar Binks.
As I mentioned, the film is not without some substance beyond its action/adventure. Because Stanton and the writers (thankfully) chose to retain the novel’s post-Civil War setting, the film explores issues of loss, expansion, imperialism, and race – even if only tangentially. Yet this is balanced by a sense of humor that caught me off guard (in a good way). I found myself laughing with the movie much more than I ever expected. Best of all, the filmmakers manage such moments of levity without making itself a punchline or fully giving over to camp.
I realize now that I have gone out of my way to avoid the specifics of the plot. On some level I suppose this is unnecessary, since (as I have noted) it has been cribbed from so many times over the years that there probably won’t be too many surprises. Yet in spite of that, and in spite of having read the books, I thoroughly enjoyed being pulled into the world of Barsoom. Its action, its pacing, its visual style, its (surprising) sense of humor, and its performances make John Carter the kind of big budget genre adventure that rarely gets made anymore. More character-driven than the Star Wars prequels and less didactic than Avatar, John Carter is refreshing in its dedication to being fun above all else. I sincerely hope the box office is profitable enough to give Disney the confidence to put a sequel into production. I would love to see more of Kitsch as Carter exploring Stanton’s vision of Barsoom, and besides - John Carter: the Gods of Mars is a hell of a good title.
Bonus – 1930s test footage for an animated John Carter of Mars
*Note: Technically this is not the first film adaptation of A Princess of Mars.
When Avatar was released to theaters, mockbuster studio The Asylum rushed out a low-budget direct-to-DVD adaptation, Princess of Mars, starring soap opera actor/model Antonio Sabato Jr and B-movie actress/ex-porn star Traci Lords. It is not good.
Had it been produced, the MGM/Bob Clampett adaptation could very well have beaten Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to become the first feature-length animated film.
© Ralph Lawson III, 2012, All Rights Reserved