Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
By now it’s probably impossible for anyone reading this not to have an opinion about John Carter. The incredibly lengthy gestation project decades in the making, an albatross of Disney’s continually bloated budget, some trailers that were frankly really terrible, and the lamest title change ever. But I’m going to tell you to sweep all that shit away, because I have information for you: John Carter is pretty awesome.
An adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, and directed by Andrew Stanton (of Finding Nemo and WALL-E fame), John Carter is the story of a former Civil War soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) who encounters an artifact that transports him to Mars, currently engaged in a war for control of the planet between two nations of humans. It’s got airships, aliens, comedy, action, and a bunch of science-magic. It is the definition of space opera.
You say space opera and people think a lot of things, but what most people think of is probably Star Wars, and honestly it’s not the worst comparison in the world. It diverges in significant ways, through, with less of a focus on the typical coming-of-age hero’s journey. Instead, it takes its time setting up a sincere amount of nuance to the main character, constructing a situation that is frankly shockingly complex for a movie that’s supposed to play to a broad audience.
John Carter is a man who was a hero before the Civil War, and we’re introduced to him at his lowest point, burnt out and ready to give up on the world. Thrust to Mars, at first he marvels at how the Martian gravity makes him super strong, able to fight of ferocious aliens and leap hundreds of feet into the air. But when the various factions in play realize he could tip the scales for the various nations, he refuses to fight and become a pawn in another (to him) pointless war.
He’s quickly captured by an alien species called Tharks, and becomes something of a pet of the leader of this warrior race. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, doing pretty amazing voice work on top of a solid CG character) is content to keep John Carter around mostly for amusement, until the war between the humans spills onto their doorstep. This is initiated by the villain, Sab Than (Dominic West), leader of a nation that’s aiming to take over the planet, chasing after Princess Dejah of the last rival nation, hoping through forced marriage to secure his rule over the planet.
John Carter himself is maybe the least interesting character, being the straight man who has to spend most of his time reacting to the situation than being an actor in it. It’s probably endemic to the original story, where an outside voice was necessary to humanize the strangeness of the setting. And it’s not as if Carter isn’t without character, especially in the second half when he begins to come out of his shell. There’s an amazingly cathartic moment roughly 2/3 in that presents Carter finally stepping up to the place intercut with a moment from his past that was genuinely moving. It’s weird that I find it strange that a main character in a big movie has a backstory and motivations beyond those of the movie, but that’s what we’re so often handed.
But more than John Carter, I want to talk about Princess Dejah. Dejah (Lynn Collins) deserves just as much, if not more mention than the title role. She’s established early on as the voice of reason in her beleaguered city, trying to use science to combat the mysterious weapons that the opposing side has developed. When she flees from the marriage she knows is a defeat for her people, she runs across John Carter and realizes that he’s the tool she needs to put up a resistance, even if that means doing the ‘wrong’ thing to get his assistance in a war only she seems to be willing to continue fighting.
As far as scifi Princesses go, Dejah is among the best, a smart character with her own goals and the ability to stand up to anyone who crosses her. She’s regal, but not unsympathetic. Tough, without falling back on the macho stereotypes that run roughshod in this kind of fiction. She’s easily the best-written part of the movie, and also probably the best acted, able to balance being the fulcrum of the plot and portray being a person who is desperate to save her people and save herself at the same time, even if those appear initially impossible. These kinds of female roles simply don’t exist in mainstream movies, and that’s a damn shame, because she’s worth the movie alone. In truth, despite the title’s change, the movie really is still about the Princess of Mars. It’s all on her shoulders, and she handles it well.
The story itself is steeped in the genre that in part was established by Burroughs’ original books, with quests and monsters to fight and great big fantastic battles between giant machines and armies of people both alien and human. It’s a more quaint science fiction, heavy with fantasy elements and action scenes that play out more as swashbuckling adventures more than laser guns and space ships. And in that, the thing I was drawn to more than anything wasn’t any science fiction movie, but Disney’s first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Like that movie, John Carter spins a dizzying amount of plates in its story. There are four distinct factions, a story of John Carter’s fate on earth, the romance between Carter and Dejah, and the small story beats of a handful of side characters. And it covers it at an exhaustive pace, managing to cram huge chunks of exposition behind clever edits and visual gags. It can be a bit much at times, the kind of film that overwhelms from the get go and hopes that you’re willing to accept this wild universe on its own terms. It worked for Pirates mostly due to the star power Depp brought to the role, but John Carter has the benefit of a much less meandering story behind it, and a romance that works far better due to the strength of Lynn Collins’ work and the writing of the character.
And also like Pirates, it’s relentlessly old-fashioned. For all its vast CG expanses and creatures, the movies I was reminded of most were the swashbuckling adventures from the 30s and 40s. This movie has far more in common with The Adventures of Robin Hood than it does Star Wars, and I think that’s where it really works. It’s ambitious due to the richness of the world more than the scope of the events, weaving a tale that is comfortable being complicated in order to flesh out the details. Maybe that’s not for everyone, but that classical style of narrative and film making still works and works well, so long as you have an audience willing to be swept up into the less modern mode of storytelling.
It’s not perfect, and it’s messy and over-ambitious, but John Carter works far more often than it doesn’t. It’s funny, it’s vast, but it has respect for its characters and their motivations, something that modern tentpole filmmaking has seemed content to leave gasping by the wayside in the endless march of progress. It’s staggering to think this movie cost what it did, that it came out of the same studio that brought us Pirates: At Patience’s End and Daft Punk Visualizer Legacy. It’s movie magic, transporting us to strange new worlds and reminding us of the simple power of a well-told tale.