REVIEW: John Carter's Soulful, Pulpy Majesty Breaks Through Big-Budget Gloss

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I had fun at John Carter. Just not $250 million worth of fun, which leads us to the central and vexing problem: Moviegoing pleasure can no longer be casual. We’re now acutely aware of how much every movie cost, how much every studio – in this case, Disney – has riding on every given project. “What does Disney need to make its money back?” becomes the overriding question, when what we really should be asking is, “Did you see how John Carter slashed his way out of that big, blubbery whatsis and came out all blue and shit?”

By now everyone knows how much Disney has riding on John Carter, which was formerly called John Carter of Mars, a much more intriguing title and one more in tune with the Edgar Rice Burroughs’s fantasy/sci-fi stories on which the movie is based. (Let’s not even question the bravery of choosing source material that almost no one under the age of 80 read as a kid, although plenty of contemporary readers find their way to Burroughs, as they should, when they’re older.) And by now everyone knows that Disney took a gamble in casting a relatively unknown actor – not to mention one with a knick-knack shelf kind of name – in the starring role.

The tragedy of John Carter is that it may be a folly in terms of how much money it cost relative to what it will make back at the box office. But it at least has the Saturday-afternoon matinee spirit, a vibe similar to that of the much-maligned (unfairly, I must add) 2002 film The Scorpion King, which successfully hitched the considerable charms of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to its faux-mythological chariot. Taylor Kitsch – best known for his role on Friday Night Lights – is John Carter, first of Virginia and then of Mars. A disaffected Civil War veteran who has lost everything, Carter stumbles into a cave in the American Southwest and somehow, suddenly, finds himself on a planet we know as Mars, though in Burroughs’s world, it’s called Barsoom.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we have any idea who John Carter is, we’ve already seen that planet and gotten a thumbnail sketch of what’s going on there: As costly post-Flash Gordon, post-Star Trek futuristic visuals loom before us on-screen -- Emerald City-style towers and domes, gargantuan zooming warships -- we learn that the small, brave city of Helium is involved in a power struggle with the mighty ruling city of Zodanga, and we see Mark Strong, with a shaved head, shimmering around in a pleated toga.

At this point I dearly wished I could flee John Carter and Barsoom for that much safer and more convivial planet called Ye Olde Watering Hole. But in the line of duty I stuck it out, and John Carter got much better. Director Andrew Stanton (of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame) adapted Burroughs’s story “A Princess of Mars” with Mark Andrews and the novelist Michael Chabon, and they’ve captured the tale's imaginative, pulpy majesty. The framing device they’ve used is taken directly from the story: The young Edgar Rice Burroughs (here played by Daryl Sabara) is summoned to settle the estate of his uncle, John Carter, and finds a sealed manuscript that recounts his Arizona-to-Barsoom (and back again) adventure.

That’s just one measure of the ambition behind John Carter, and of Stanton’s desire to remain true to Burroughs’s spirit. The picture is far from perfect: It’s overgrown and bumbling in places, a victim of its own extravagant desires and the fact that Stanton had the bank account to fulfill them. When Carter lands on Mars, he encounters a race of supertall green warriors known as Tharks, intelligent but somewhat inscrutable creatures with four arms and two legs each, and curly tusks flaring from their cheeks like otherworldly mutton chops. At first, the Tharks are quite wondrous to look at. (And Samantha Morton, as the most compassionate Thark of all, Sola, gives a marvelously nuanced performance even though we can’t see her face.) But they’re not all that different from the usual George Lucas folderol, and creating so many of them must have cost a lot of needless shekels. So often I look at these effects-laden “movie events” and think that Ray Harryhausen (who, in fact, was once in the running to make a John Carter film of his own, though it never came to fruition) could have pulled off something just as effective, or perhaps even more so, for $82.56. It’s ingenuity, not money, that counts, and sometimes the most inspired filmmaking happens when people don’t have the money to do everything they want.

But spirit counts for something too, and John Carter has plenty of that, in addition to the requisite dashes of wit. Kitsch is as good as anyone needs to be to play Martian beefcake: He has an easy, winning smile, but there’s something appropriately wistful too – necessary for an actor who’s playing a man out of his time, and out of place. His love interest, the Barsoom princess Dejah Thoris, was probably Burroughs’s dream girl, and as Lynn Collins plays her, she might be yours, too: Dejah Thoris may run around in skimpy princess outfits (the better to show off Collins’s Stairmaster thighs), but she’s also an unapologetic geek -- it is she who unlocks the secret of the 9th Ray, and if you want to know what it is, you’ll have to see the movie.

The action in John Carter is more muddled than it needs to be. The plot revolves around the power struggle between Helium and Zodanga – the Tharks get involved in it too – and though there are some potentially exhilarating fight scenes and battle sequences, they’re not as precise as you might hope for. Actors like Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds and the aforementioned Strong show up in reasonably well-developed roles, though there’s so much going on, it’s sometimes hard to focus on the significance of any of these characters, or to really care.

Yet John Carter is so eager to please that, despite its overblown execution, it still manages to feel intimate and fun. In some places, whatever money Stanton had was well-spent: One of the loveliest effects is a network of glowing electric-blue vines that transform themselves into enveloping, entwining veins -- they grant special powers to those who come into contact with them. When Carter first lands on Barsoom, he learns rather quickly that he can’t run as he’s used to doing on Earth, but is instead able to bound and leap like a gazelle once he gets the hang of it – his learning curve is fun to watch. And the schlubby, purply-brown doglike creature who becomes his companion and protector – his name is Woola – has a kind of ewky charm.

In the end, John Carter does capture the wistfulness of Burroughs’s original story, that feeling of waking up from a beautiful dream and wanting, even more than you want life itself, to get back there. In Burroughs’s story – in the chapter called “Love-Making on Mars” (which really is as good a place to do it as any, right?) – Dejah Thoris listens with amusement to some of John Carter’s thoroughly Earthbound ideas of what it means to be a warrior. He sees the look on her face and asks her to explain. “ ‘No,’ she exclaimed, ‘it is enough that you have said it and that I have listened. And when you learn, John Carter, and if I be dead, as likely I shall be ere the further moon has circled Barsoom another twelve times, remember that I listened and that I -- smiled.’ ” It’s another way of saying, “John Carter, you’re kind of a mess, but I like you anyway,” a sentiment that can mean as much in the movie theaters of Earth as in the hills of Barsoom.

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  • Max Renn says:

    Sorry, you lost me when you championed The Scorpion King.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: In the end, John Carter does capture the wistfulness of Burroughs’s original story, that feeling of waking up from a beautiful dream and wanting, even more than you want life itself, to get back there.

    Though it made you think of au-courant yoga exercises, and David Denby of the newspapers and coffee houses one's denied for only knowing athletic fun, for most of us that was Avatar. This film was amiable; I don't know if I would recommend it, but it was pleasing to see a film without a cynical bone in its body. What caught my attention was how Kitsch caught, literally -- though barely -- his macho princess's assertiveness. That they felt well enough matched was a credit to his sufficient layer of absorbtiveness and sufficient resisting inner core, and possibly because he is denied the kind of chest muscles that balk women but invite bullets. When that man's head caved in, you sensed Carter would be spared for already having taken in some of the poison.

  • christopher says:

    I'm sorry, but it says nothing about the quality of the film to discuss its budget. Why should you as a critic care what the movie cost? It wasn't your $250 million. They don't charge you any more to see this than they did to see Chronicle, which cost approximately nothing to make. Most film critics and entertainment reporters don't really even understand film industry economics (even when they think they do) so maybe they should just tell us if they liked the movie or not, and why.

  • mikeBOS says:

    Who the hell goes into a movie wondering if it's going to make money for the publisher?

    My concerns are usually more along the lines of: 1. Do I have time to pee one more time before the previews are over? and 2. Did I get too much popcorn again?

  • Strepsi says:

    Stephanie is not saying she wants to discuss its budget, she is saying people are discussing its budget rather than its qualities. So basically you 2 and she are on the same page. I also dislike this Entertainment Tongiht "insiderism" that has poisoned entertainment reporting.

    We saw the movie opening night and really enjoyed it! It was not "edgy" or "snarky" or crass, it was -- like Star Wars or Raiders -- good sincere fun that really captured the feel of early 20th century serials and space operas.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Yeah, sorry, Stephanie, most people aren't discussing the film's budget. I'm sure the industry in L.A. is, but most of the people stumping up for popcorn and trudging into "John Carter" are saying "I hope it's a cool film" or "Man, that ice cream is expensive" or, very occasionally, "Isn't that the guy from that football thing we didn't watch?"

    Yes, we're in a culture where Entertainment Tonight will bring up the film's budget. The presumption that the audience is then beholden to that piece of knowledge is obviously ridiculous. If you can't get it out of your mind when watching a film, well, that's kinda the film's fault. And yes, we have had a string of crappy B-films masquerading as A's lately, and the trend is likely to continue. It's not the media's fault.

    Well, maybe it is, but not for that reason.

  • JAB says:

    Whenever I go see a movie I could care less about the budget. Like Christopher said I didn't spend $250mil to see it.
    I LOVE this movie. It has the pulp naivete & drive that made the novel so darn fun to read. If this movie had been released 30 some odd years ago --y'know before that "Star Wars" film-- we'd be celebrating Tharks rather than droids. There's a fan made trailer on YouTube that sells this great film brilliantly & shows that Disney couldn't giveaway free tix to Coachella effectively.