John Carter opened to some of the worst reviews I've ever seen, including a monumental raspberry from the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. So I wasn't surprised that when we went to see it in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, there were only two other people in the crowd. I was surprised, however, to find that the film was nowhere near as bad as the critics would have you believe. For sure it's easy to understand the roots of complaints like Bradshaw's. Because John Carter is overblown in any number of ways. It's too long, because of repetition; it's too big, with too many scenes or situations there seemingly only to find a way to use the expensive CGI (apparently much of the cost overruns involved re-shoots to merge up the live action with the animated backgrounds, and one wonders how much of the film's expense is intra-studio anyway) and it tries to do too much, indicated primarily by the contrasting acting styles of heroes and villains.
It was also a film marketed ass-backwards. John Carter is based on the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, set on Mars, and titled A Princess Of Mars. It's an interplanetary love story as well as a prototypical lost city adventure novel, but looking at the film posters and trailers you'd think it was about a muscle-bound guy trying to drag a huge rock away from animated monsters. Has they featured Lynn Collins, as the erstwhile titular princess, in her Frank Frazetta-style battle gear, they might have drawn a female audience and they certainly would have drawn every teenaged male with hormones pumping through his body. Even though Collins at times looks like a more muscular Minnie Driver, which is not necessarily the best thing, but she survives.
It's as if, while Hollywood continues to pillage the adolescent reading (and watching) habits of Baby Boomers, they want to deny its adolescence. Perhaps it's the dynamic of the industry itself that inflates cinematic versions of pulp (in the real, generic sense) fictions, like actors taking steroids to play muscle man roles. In effect, this is a huge-budget adaptation of a low-budget adventure story, and it battles against itself in its ultimate unwillingness to surrender to its material.
ERB's Martian novels, like most of his work, drive a hero through a series of encounters. On Mars this involves the battle between the vari-coloured races which make up the red planet, and analogies to 19th century perceptions of white men and lesser races are made clear early on in both book and film: Burroughs served out west and had great respect for his Indian adversaries; the fact that John Carter is a former Confederate officer sets him up as a rebel, willing to ally with the racial underdogs while always remaining part of the overdog club.
Which is exactly what happens to him on Mars—fighting with the underdogs but allied, via the comely Deja Thoris, the red-skinned princess, to the overdogs.
It's a great set up, and the makes the most of its conflicts. John Carter must prove himself to the 15-foot tall, multi-armed Tharks, then lead them in battle on the side of their traditional enemies. The script, co-written by Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, hews pretty closely to Burroughs' basic tensions: Chabon has already shown himself to be a faithful yet telling interpreter of such material. And director Andrew Stanton, as you might expect from the guy who did WALL-E, has considerable sensitivity too. Action scenes move simply and dynamically, and the framing story, involving Carter's nephew Edgar Burroughs, are well done.
Taylor Kitsch is surprisingly good as Carter—in the TV series Friday Night Lights he never seemed quite solid enough to be the Dillon High fullback, and occasionally he seems too light for Carter as well, but he manages to carry off the action well while catching the lighter tones of the character just as well as he does the sombre. Just before seeing John Carter, I watched Kitsch playing another character named Carter in Bang Bang Club, this time in Martinborough when we were the only people there. Here's he's sort of more muscular Johnny Depp. He's a specialist in the heavy-browed pout to display internal emotion, but John Carter doesn't ask for an overdose of that. I read a lot of criticism of the Tharks, but Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as his daughter Sola may well be the best part of the film; the simmering feud between the wise old chief Tars and the war-hungry young brave Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) is a parallel to the main story, and the fact that these CGI characters are easily the most 'human' in the film is an irony Hollywood and critics alike seemed to miss.
The real problem is on the villain side. First because Dominic West seems to be enjoying himself too much to take it seriously, and seems also to believe in the essential dumbness of his character Sab Than. You wonder why the all-powerful Therns would have chosen Sab as their vehicle, and why their boss, Thern, wears that stupid earclip. I wonder if there was a trans-Atlantic disconnect going on during filming, because Cieran Hands seems intent on channelling the awesome talents of Brian Blessed into his role. Maybe the clip was the best Strong could do.
You also might wonder why the boss Thern, Shang (Mark Strong) never seems to use his greatest powers when he needs them. Perhaps there is a subtle existential problem being worked out, about over-manipulating societies, but if there is I missed it. I did get the parallels with Earth society, however, on both the 19th and 21st century levels, though that seems to have passed the critics by as well. It should be noted that the straight-to-video Princess Of Mars (2009) starring Traci Lords as Deja Thoris (!), set John Carter in modern-day Afghanistan before his transport to Mars. (As an aside, it's a shame Lords wasn't still doing adult films, as a cheapie porn ripoff of Princess Of Mars could have been called Deja Throatest). Back to the original point—Carter's final ploy at the end of the film would seem useless if Shang and the Tharns were really as powerful as they say—why would they not have simply killed John Carter as they did Sab Than? It's like the way Carter's ability to leap great distances (like the original Superman, by no coincidence at all, since this is where Siegel and Shuster got the idea) due to lesser gravity gets greater and greater as the film goes on, and how, towards the end, we also see the final reel compression of distance which allows the ride to the rescue. These things are common in big action movies, and they are not the real problem, nor the cause of the film's bad reviews.