John Carter arrives in theaters today consumed by terrible buzz and reduced expectations, with prognosticators of all stripes predicting a monumental flop for Disney. It’s a 3D, $250m affair that’s tracking worse than the second weekend of The Lorax, they say, and it’s a ridiculously expensive gamble for a first-time live-action director (Andrew Stanton, of Finding Nemo and WALL-E fame). In the press, the narrative has been written: You don’t want to see this movie.
And that’s a shame, because it’s actually quite good. It’s sad that we’ve reached a cultural place where a bold, imaginative science-fiction effort like this, a film with beautiful imagery and a well-founded allegiance to gloriously pulpy source material, is so easily dismissed. Not to get all Armond White here, but the contemptible gleeful scorn being heaped on the film by Nikki Finke and others just reemphasizes how little so many people who write about movies actually care about movies.
If they gave a damn about, you know, art, they’d have to acknowledge that at the very least this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s century-old novel “A Princess of Mars” harkens back to the grand mid-century Disney tradition of films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which took great pleasure in immersive production design. You could take or leave the plot, though I’d mostly take it, but there’s no disputing the fact that Stanton has rendered Mars as a complete universe unto itself, full of zooming spaceships and cluttered, towering cities, a weird and altogether original blend of futuristic and ancient Roman tropes.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran, is wandering the Arizona frontier in search of a cave of gold in 1868, when an encounter with a mystical being finds him magically transported to Mars. On the Red Planet — Barsoom to the locals — Carter is taken in by the towering, reptilian Thark people and ultimately swept up in a war for the future of Martian city Helium, led there by the beautiful princess Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins).
The narrative is strained to fit the picture’s unwieldy 132 minutes and there’s lots of cornball dialogue throughout, but you spend much of John Carter with your mouth agape, awed at the spectacle and thankful for the fact that a filmmaker with vision has finally been given real money to tell one of these stories, so the shortcomings don’t especially matter. Every frame is rich with carefully calibrated detail. The movie captures the spirit of early 20th Century literature that’s alive with the thrill of the imagination, imbued with a long gone enthusiasm for new frontiers and the secrets they hold.
John Carter is a film with the courage to dream up a new world, populate it fully and transport you there, in the way that only movies can. It’s visionary and philosophical, with the sort of complex allusions to death, immortality and the destruction of civilizations that you don’t expect to find in a $250 million movie.
That’s an achievement to be celebrated, not scorned, regardless of what happens at the box office.
The Upside: This is a bold, imaginative effort crafted in a grand science-fiction tradition.
The Downside: The narrative itself is uneven and the dialogue is consistently awful.
On the Side: The decision to remove “of Mars” from the original title was clearly a mistake. John Carter could, in theory, be about anything.