Right now, we’re seeing a lot of bile being spewed in the entertainment media over Disney’s John Carter. The knives are out and a lot of voices are actively rooting for the film to fail. This is strange to me, as the movie is directed by seemingly nice guy Andrew Stanton, who’s given us two stone-cold classics in Finding Nemo and Wall*E. Yes, John Carter has a fairly astronomical budget. Yes, the marketing for it has been so horrendous on Disney’s part that it almost suggests intentional self-sabotage. Entertainment reporters and bloggers (not to mention Jimmy Fallon) are having a field day with John Carter, and whether or not the movie is actually any good is an afterthought.
The answer to that question is a resounding “kind of.”
I have to first admit that while I haven’t read the Edgar Rice Burroughs books on which the film is based, I am keenly aware of their significance as the Rosetta Stone of contemporary science fiction.
Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins in the late, great TV series Friday Night Lights) stars as the titular character, a Civil War veteran out West defending the Arizona Territory. When he encounters a strange being in a cave, John Carter is transported to Mars, or Barsoom as the characters in the film refer to it.
It turns out the lower gravity on Mars has given Cater (a decorated soldier) super strength and the ability to jump really high and far. These powers are going to come in handy as Carter will get involved with a battle for the planet.
The film has a lot going for it. The budget is pretty much all up on screen and the movie looks great. Along the way Carter becomes involved with the Tharks, four-armed and green-skinned creatures we’d more traditionally refer to as Martians. The Tarks are entirely rendered by CGI and they look fantastic. Give props to Stanton and his team for giving the individual Tharks like Tars Tarses (played in motion capture by Pixar vet Willem DaFoe) enough distinction and personality to tell them apart. There are a lot of them, and these aren’t Michael Bay’s indistinguishable Transformers.
After Carter arrives on Mars and encounters the Tharks (which is zippy and fun), the film runs into a dead end on Exposition Boulevard. Princess Deja Thoris (played by Lynn Collins) has to give Carter all the backstory and Barsoomian mythology. The middle section of the movie is a slog and it grinds to a halt.
Also problematic is John Carter himself. I was a huge fan of Kitsch on the aforementioned Friday Night Lights, so I was almost shocked (shocked!) by how little charisma he provides here. A former Abercrombie and Fitch model, Kitsch looks great onscreen and is totally up to the physical demands of the action. But, this is a movie that features a weird-a$$ alien dog named Wolla. There’s a certain quality an actor can bring to a film like this, where he is aware of the movie’s ridiculousness without falling over into camp. Chris Hemsworth found that tone last summer in Thor. The movie gets the tone right, but Kitsch’s Carter is one wooden note of sullen. And, he and Collins have no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Again, this is totally bizarre as Kitsch had chemistry with pretty much any woman they put in front of him on Friday Night Lights.
That said, the action sequences are pretty thrilling, and the third act regains its footing. As Brad Bird proved at Christmas, the animation guys really know how to shoot live-action action. There are a couple of set pieces (one involving white apes that’s all over the marketing) in John Carter that are thrilling.
The supporting cast does nice work. At this point in Breaking Bad’s run, I’d be willing to watch Bryan Cranston clean his gutters. He’s great in limited screen time as a Cavalry officer. Collins doesn’t have much chemistry with Kitsch, but she’s great as a strong woman. And, villain du jour Mark Strong is effective, and he doesn’t have to have Sinestro’s giant head.
The media sharks who are circling John Carter are really misguided. The film moves in fits and starts and is far from perfect. But, it does a great job of world creating and with all of the exposition out of the way (and if the hero would lighten up a little), future trips to Mars would be well worth taking.