Review: John Carter, 2012, dir. Andrew Stanton

Watching Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal science fiction pulp novel, A Princess of Mars— here blandly labeled John Carter— is equivalent to a genre-fueled out of body experience. You’ve seen this film before. You’ve seen it in Star Wars (both the original trilogy and the prequel films), you’ve seen it in Avatar, you’ve seen it in Superman. John Carter‘s influences read so blatantly that watching the film feels akin to playing a movie association game in which elements from its plot and narrative are connected to those of other essential sci-fi blockbusters. What we’re really watching, of course, is the big-screen arrival of the story that informed each of those aforementioned properties and more; to label John Carter “derivative” is to reveal a great misunderstanding about the impact it’s had on genre fiction since 1917.

And so it’s sort of a shame that the film works unevenly. More often than not, the fruits of Stanton’s labors are praise-worthy; at its best, John Carter is exciting, energetic, gorgeous to behold, and defined by impressive world-building and FX work. When the film sputters and falters, the effect is somewhat deflating. In fact, the aspects of the film that fail to satisfy do so in such a noticeable fashion that they end up underscoring just how good the film is when it’s at its best– though that does, in fact, functions in reverse as well.

Burroughs’ original novel concerns the exploits and adventures of John Carter, an American Confederate cavalryman who, through circumstance, finds himself transported to the surface of Mars– called Barsoom by its inhabitants, and which looks an awful lot like the American frontier. Before long Carter finds himself deeply entrenched in the political strife brewing between Helium and Zodanga, two enemy cities that for ages have been vying for dominance of the planet’s surface, as well as the tribal ways of the Tharks, tall, green-skinned, four-limbed humanoids who largely view compassion as weakness and are prone to settle disputes with steel. With minor exceptions, John Carter follows that outline fairly closely. Stanton raises an entire world from the ground up, introduces us to a variety of alien races, and impresses the mores of several different cultures upon us, and he does each with equal efficacy. When the film gets rolling, you won’t be lost amid the innumerable crises, characters, and conflicts at its center.

You may, however, find yourself more puzzled by character motivations and framing devices. Strictly speaking, the presence of the Machiavellian Matai Shang (Mark Strong), makes sense; Stanton clearly means to peg Shang and his race as the antagonists in future installments of the John Carter franchise. And yet the logic behind Shang’s involvement here is murky at best. Maybe it’s the racial proclivity of his people to manufacture the downfall of planets, but smarmy, arbitrary super-aliens aren’t especially compelling villains. Most baffling, though, is that John Carter already has a solid villain in Dominic West’s power-hungry warlord, Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga. Sab Than makes for a fine standalone bad guy in the novel; Shang’s addition to the proceedings, then, feels like nothing more than an over-complication and a contrivance meant to set him up as the heavy in the next film.

And then there are the scenes which bookend the story we’re there to watch unfold. Suggesting that Burroughs got the concept for A Princess of Mars by reading his uncle’s diaries is a cute idea– and one that does, if I’m not misled, come up later in the novels– but by treating John Carter as nothing more than the sum of the pages in the titular character’s pages reduces the film’s epic stature. Maybe John Carter doesn’t need to be epic, but it wants to be, and actually inserting Burroughs as our audience identification character discovering his uncle’s exploits fights against that big, bold sensibility. And– like Strong’s presence– it’s not necessary. Nothing is achieved with the Burroughs character that couldn’t have been without him.

Part of what makes John Carter frustrating comes from being able to envision, with clarity, just how good the film would be had those two characters and conceits been excised from the script. As a genre epic, John Carter should have scope; the Burroughs character and the Threns stretch that scope out too far for no tangible gain. There’s never a moment where they feel essential. Yet they never incite narrative collapse, either, which speaks highly to the strength of John Carter‘s numerous better merits. Stanton has transitioned to live action with little trouble, though the sensibilities of his work with Pixar crop up here nevertheless. John’s Martian dog sidekick, Woola, for example, feels deeply rooted in Pixar sensibilities– he’s sweet, loyal, lovable, incredibly alive, and handy in a fight– while the film boasts a sense of humor that’s used to great effect in softening the blow of expository dialogue while also attenuating the more grave characteristics of its plot.

And when the time for action comes, John Carter soars. Carter’s battle against a legion of enraged Thark warriors should stick in the cinematic collective unconscious immediately and remain for a very, very long time; it’s one of the best sequences in the film, and years from now should rank among Stanton’s best work. The fact that he gets it right in just about every other action set piece in the film is almost gravy– that’s how good the Thark fight is. Stanton’s approach to filmmaking isn’t fancy, but it is effective. There are no fast, hectic cuts here, just careful, planned shots that cut when they need to and linger when they don’t. Maybe it helps that the effects here are pretty marvelous, but nothing beats measured, precise, and intentional filmmaking, which Stanton uses to John Carter‘s frequent benefit.

As strong as the film is technically, nothing here trumps the performance of Lynn Collins. Collins plays Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Helium and an archetype-shattering female character. Dejah’s royal standing might leave some to assume she’s nothing more than a damsel in distress; like the Princess Leias and the Ripleys of cinema, though, she can more than take care of herself. Not just in combat– though Dejah can fight, and fight very well as John learns to his embarrassment when they first meet– but in the realm of politics as well. Dejah’s powerful, authoritative, and deductive and brilliant; Collins, clearly, gets that, and plays her just big enough without tripping over the line of camp. In the end, Collins’ portrayal of Dejah outshines the rest of the cast– including Taylor Kitsch, her leading man, who’s solid when physicality calls and stumbles the rest of the time– which is no small feat considering the raw talent of the supporting cast. Willem DaFoe, James Purefoy, West, and Ciaran Hinds all turn out good work, but with the exception of Dafoe they’re used too little and never attain the same presence as Collins.

The problems that stymie John Carter aren’t insurmountable. Nor should they be forgiven, either; they keep the film from being as good as it could be. On that same token they don’t render the picture bad or even mediocre. For all of the polish the script lacks, there’s vision and ambition here, and for the most part, those two elements carry through with great success. Indeed, it’ be nothing short of a crime if the efforts of Stanton, his cast, and his crew were to be overlooked and ultimately forgotten. 

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18 thoughts on “Review: John Carter, 2012, dir. Andrew Stanton

  1. Really good review.

    I agree with you on the Thens. Though I get where you are coming from regarding Burroughs bookending the film, I liked that he was there.

    Also, I never considered Ripley a damsel in distress.

    • Thanks Victor.

      In theory I didn’t mind Burroughs’ presence. It just felt really clunky and cutesy. To my knowledge that DOES happen at some point in the Barsoom series, but I feel like it’s just an extraneous element in introducing the character and the mythology to a brand new audience. One more thing to over-complicate the movie.

      The Therns really shouldn’t have been here at all. Mentioned in passing, yes, so that we have an idea of what they are, which would have made their revelation in the second film somewhat more awe-inspiring as they’re just myths to the Martian races.

      Ripley’s not a damsel in distress at all. I’m saying that Dejah’s like Ripley and Leia, two women more than capable of handling themselves and who weren’t totally helpless.

      As for the art, it’s from Mondo! They do great stuff, though I hope I’m not stepping on any toes by using this here. It’s a great poster.

  2. Ah, I love reading your reviews. They are always so well written and informative that I wait for them with bated breath. I really enjoyed this film. Yes, it has problems but the whole film is endearing with all the bad buzz it gets but its not so bad actually. I was alot of fun and pretty solid on the genre film front. But the one moment that sticks out involves a fight cut between a burial that was actually quite surprising to me. Good review, Andrew. Glad you could see the good in this one.

    • I think we’re at a place where people tend to discard movies when the response to it isn’t “OMG BEST THING EVER”. It’s got flaws, but flaws don’t make a movie bad. The Artist has flaws. Hell, Hugo has flaws. And I agree that the fight against the Tharks, with the burial scene cut amid the battle, is spectacular.

    • Two words: “Of Mars.” I think keeping those in the title would have done a lot for the whole picture. Thanks Jean! Let me know what you think when you check it out!

  3. Well-written review as usual, Andrew. I’m glad to see you liked the film as well. I actually felt using the Burroughs character was a good thing, personally; I don’t think it reduces the epic feel of the main narrative, and it enables the movie to pull off a small surprise at the end by leaving the exact nature of Carter’s plan a secret. It’s not major, but I think it helps a little.

    On the Thern… I can see where you’re coming from on them. They are kind of an out-of-context villain in the film, and clearly a “sequel setup” villain. And while it’s been long enough since I read A Princess of Mars that I don’t remember the details clearly, if they were absent from there, I can understand the objection to their addition. Still, the only real problem I had with them was the question of just why they’re manipulating everything, and even that was only a minor issue for me.

    • Maybe Burroughs’ presence here should make us feel like we’re reading the book for ourselves for the first time. Theoretically, I do like that; it ties in with the sense of discovery that pervades the rest of the movie. But it’s just not needed to get Carter to where he needs to be at the end. Cut out the Therns especially and that ending is much easier for him to reach on his own, without the aid of the Burroughs character.

      The only reason I object to their addition is that they’re just poorly explained. It’s exactly what you say– why? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What are they gaining? What’s their purpose? If they were there to restore the balance, as Shang mentions at one point, that’s one thing. But he then goes on to blab about destroying the world, which is antithetical to the tenets of balance he suggests beforehand. Maybe their greater purpose is yet to be revealed, but it would be better if they were left to do so in the next film so as to allow Stanton to focus solely on the Martian races, the war between Helium and Zodanga, and Carter coming to grips with his role in the joint conflict. There’s not enough time to do all the things Stanton has to do by including Burroughs and the Therns here.

  4. Pingback: John Carter will take you on a beautifully realized adventure! « nediunedited

  5. Nice review. I think I’m much more likely to check this out now. Originally, I figured this was just going to be a CGI-fest with no substance and no real fun. However, I’ve been seeing a lot of positive reviews for this. While some have panned it, it definitely seems John Carter has a following of appreciators. Nothing I’ll go to the theater for, but I think at this point I am going to have to pick up the Blu-ray.

    • I think it’s well worth one’s time to see it in the theater, where it’ll have the most impact, but it is so hit-or-miss that waiting to get it via Netflix or something makes just as much sense. You’ll have to let me know what you think when you get around to seeing it!

  6. I feel like we’ve talked about this already LOL.

    Anyways, I havent had a good moment to get a comment in here.

    “The problems that stymie John Carter aren’t insurmountable. Nor should they be forgiven, either; they keep the film from being as good as it could be.”

    Agreed on the fact that the movie has issues that keep it from being as good as it could be…

    “On that same token they don’t render the picture bad or even mediocre.”

    Disagree… I do think it winds up pushing it into mediocrity.

    JC certainly isnt a bad fillm by any means, I dont want to hammer it. But I did leave feeling like I saw a big blockbuster… but thats about it. The only character I really connected with it the big space pug dog. LOL

    But you knew where I stood already, glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    • Yeah I think we’ve talked this one to death. So let’s do it some more!

      I tend to define mediocrity as the failure to wield some kind of vision or demonstrate ambition. Flaws don’t make a movie mediocre by default for me; that middle-of-the-road state of being most often is found in movies that lack scope but should have it in spades.

      So John Carter might have some big warts, but I wouldn’t call it mediocre. The second and third Pirates films are the very definition of mediocre for me, and this doesn’t quite compare in terms of quality. (Though in terms of their flaws they’re close. Stanton’s just a better director.)

      And yes, Woola totally rocks. I want a Woola of my very own!

  7. Pingback: John Carter (2012) | Cine

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