- Summary -
Director : Andrew Stanton
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Mark Strong, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara.
Approx Running Time : 132 Minutes
Synopsis: When John Carter, a Confederate Captain during the American Civil War, is transported to the neighboring planet of Mars, he is swept up in a battle for the planet thanks to the machinations of a powerful alien race.
What we think : Effortlessly charming, Star Wars-lite film version of the iconic Edgar Rice Burroughs story, The Princess Of Mars, Andrew Stanton’s often awestruck direction takes a back seat to visual grandiosity and adventurous fun. At times tense, at times humorous, and entirely pulp-fiction cinema, John Carter might have been a bloated production, but the end result isn’t the disaster you’ve been led to believe. As enormous epic films go, John Carter is eminently entertaining, even if it’s not always as great as it wants to be.
As a cautionary story, John Carter stands right up alongside Ishtar and Cutthroat Island as famous Hollywood failures. Whether it deserves to is a matter of conjecture, but the box-office failure of Andrew Stanton’s take on the Barsoom stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs has, in my estimation, little to do with the actual film and more to do with Disney’s marketing of it. John Carter isn’t a bad film, and if it can be said at the opening of a critical review, it never really crosses the line into being a film that deserves the abject humiliation of being one of modern Hollywood’s least successful box-office stories. Costing around $200 million to make, the eventual box-office take is rumored to be somewhere about $280 million, which barely covers marketing the juggernaut Disney tried to make this out to be. Whether it’s studio or directorial hubris is something Disney will no doubt reflect on into the very distant future, suffice to say I don’t think the end result warrants the gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing it received critically on debut. In the cold light of a year’s distance since release, we take stock of John Carter as a film – not as an event – and try to determine its merits as exactly that: a piece of human entertainment that happened to cost a shitload of money to make. Was it worth it, if only to tell a story which has been called the basis for all modern science fiction ever since, and if not, why not? Is John Carter the disaster it was painted as, or is it time to give our human adventurer a little more latitude in his dealings with the Red Planet?
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Battleship) is a former Confederate Captain during the American Civil War, however when he absconds from his duty to his country, taking refuge in a cave somewhere in Arizona, he is suddenly transported to Mars (referred to in the film as Barsoom), where is embroiled in another war there – the war between the Zodanga, led by the ruthless Sab Than (Dominic West), and Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds). Tardos Mors’ daughter, Princess Tejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) refuses to accept the marriage proposal of Sab Than, a proposal which would see peace between their warring societies, and she is forced to escape into the Martian wasteland, where she encounters Carter. Carter has been captured by the Tharks, a multi-limbed race of martians who seek to keep out of the war between the Zodangan’s and the Heliums. Due to his thicker bone density, John Carter discovers that he has enhanced strength and abilities on Mars: the ability to jump exceptional heights and distances, and a superior physical stamina and strength that allows him greater fighting potential – the Tharks see this as a threat, while Princess Tejah decides to use him as a weapon against slavery and decimation by the Zondangans. Carter, meanwhile, tries to balance his feelings of home with those of his new-found allegiance, an allegiance which could ultimately see him killed should the vile Thurns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) see their plans come to fruition.
When Pixar director Andrew Stanton was revealed to be helming his first live action feature film, and given virtual carte blanche by Disney to do what he wanted, I began to feel the tremors of a fools errand involved in John Carter. No director, no matter how powerful or remarkable to a studio, should be given the “keys to the kingdom”, which is essentially what Disney gave Stanton. Much like Peter Jackson’s bloated and ultimately critical misfire remake of King Kong – Universal Pictures gave Jackson a blank cheque to make Kong off the back of his success with Lord Of The Rings – John Carter’s enormous production budget required the film to make over half a billion dollars in box-office receipts alone before it could be called “profitable”, and not too many films had ever achieved that before. A director given a blank cheque to bring a film to the big screen is always a worrying affair, thanks largely to what one might describe as a “lack of oversight” in what the director can ask; normally, a producer with a tight rein on the budget will ensure a film can be pulled off without a major blowout in financial requirements, however it seems this time Disney’s faith in their Pixar wunderkind blinded them to the potential pitfalls of giving a director an open run on his dream project, resulting in John Carter’s insurmountable budgetary blowout. Coupled with a lackluster, horribly unfocused marketing campaign (might as well have called this film Gordon Hufflepuff for all most people knew about the John Carter of literature) Disney were up against it to recoup their expenses on this science fiction epic.
John Carter isn’t a bad film. I said it earlier, and I repeat that statement now because I really enjoyed watching this story unfold. The story itself, and the casting and visual effects, are all top notch (yes, even Taylor Kitsch, whose role in Battleship would remain among the worst of 2012, isn’t that bad here) and yet audiences stayed away. The prospect of a film with part Star Wars, part Lawrence Of Arabia, part War Of The Worlds would normally have been a filmmaker’s dream come true, and for the most part, Stanton nails the concepts and the execution. The character and broad-strokes narrative move at a rapid clip, barely allowing the audience to keep up, and if they can’t keep up, leaving them lost in a mixture of introductory exposition so convoluted it would make a Star Trek fan lose their shit. Carter’s world is, in a word, epic. The scale of the story is continental, to say the least, and although Stanton often gives up trying to keep things entirely coherent, he manages to at least provide a welcome respite from the drudge of faux emotion by providing some stunning action set-pieces. There’s so much going on, nearly an overdose of story points to cover, that the film does struggle to keep all the balls it’s juggling up in the air. Subplots tend to become buried under a weight of spectacle over story, which is disappointing for those expecting depth to the premise; in place of depth of story comes a plethora of character designed (it seems) to keep the audience wondering just what the hell is going on.
John Carter is played appropriately by Taylor Kitsch. I’m no plaudit for Kitsch as an actor more than he is a Vercace model, but here the lad pulls off the impossible: he grounds John Carter as a human being, albeit a flawed one. While the script struggles to give Carter a real centralized motivation for his actions, his beliefs and his rationales considering he’s from a time period on Earth before technology like that displayed in this film exists on our planet, what it does do is ground Carter in a pulp-realism, an escapist concoction of masculinity and inherent moral fortitude. If he’s the aliens first taste of humanity, then he’s a at least a good looking one. Thank God it’s not called Homer Simpson of Earth… right? Stanton knows Kitsch’s limits as a serious dramatic actor (and Peter Berg would know that now, after his Battleship experience) and keeps him well away from anything approximating realistic human emotions. Instead, Carter is played as a heightened everyman, righteous and barley conflicted, knowing what he must do morally, even though his codes of morals don’t exist on Barsoom.
Kitsch’s leading lady, Lynn Collins, is really good as the firebrand princess who seeks a better life and world for her people; if she’s not the archetypal princess of fables, then I don’t know what it. Strong of character and yet feminine to a fault, Princess Tejah is the emotional equal to Carter himself, two halves of a whole destined to remain together. You can see it coming a mile away (hell, it’s reminiscent of Han Solo and Princess Leia, if you ask me) but it’s still fun to watch. Sure, the dramatic impetus of their scenes together hinges on some daffy scripting, but their chemistry is strong enough to overcome this in many ways. Mark Strong, as the central villain, is brooding and haughty once more – it’s the same role he’s played in virtually every film he’s ever been in where he’s been the Bad Guy, and it’s starting to get tiresome, Mark – while Dominic West is also good as the Zodangan General who seeks to exterminate the Helium resistance at any cost. Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church and Willem Dafoe can’t be recognized as their digital avatar constructs, the Tharks, because they all look so alike they sorta blend into one another. With an indeterminate amount of input into the finished result, one can assume that the animators of the Thark creations had a fair degree of embellishment to get these nine-feet-tall character to come to life. James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston are given cameo roles as a Helium soldier and a Union Colonel respectively; they bring nothing to the film other than incentive for stuff to happen.
Andrew Stanton helms this film with the kinds of pacing and visual style that most people don’t quite get these days; I hate to use the term “swashbuckling” for a science fiction feature, but that’s probably the most appropriate. The overriding sense of fun permeates the essence of each frame of John Carter, much like the first Pirates Of The Caribbean film. Kitsch’s winning performance is probably the key here, with his wide-eyed wonder and sense of humor intact, a factor which allows us to embrace him as a leading character in discovering this new and exciting world. The pacing of the film leaves little time for things such as logic and realism: this is grand scale entertainment that does exactly what it says- entertain. Newcomers to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world (Burroughs created Tarzan, and the John Carter stories are over a hundred years old, so there shouldn’t be anyone unfamiliar with them at least from a cursory perspective) might feel a little lost, but everyone else should sit back and have a grand time at the movies. John Carter is great entertainment.