My experience with the pulp sci-fi of the first half of the 20th Century isn’t extensive, but one thing that always struck me is that it feels cleaner and more decent than our modern fiction. Not “cleaner” in the sense of family values, but unencumbered by irony or dystopian moroseness. Which isn’t to say its outlook is always bright and cheery and optimistic, but simply that it’s earnest and maintains a fundamental belief in the basic goodness of a grand adventure. The male heroes are generally a bit too good to be true – honorable, physically capable, possessed of just enough dry wit to avoid being saccharine, and just enough darkness to carry some weight – but not overtly so. Given the times, the treatment of women is also surprisingly egalitarian, and in some ways superior to today’s storytelling. The heroines never quite rise to the level of full protagonist, but it’s usually taken as a given that they can handle themselves in a crisis or a fight, and they’re allowed to be just as principled and prickly as the men. It’s all a bunch of stories clearly told by boys at heart, but boys who are trying to live within the structure of manhood. There’s a full-bloodedness to it that seems lacking these days.
To a large extent, John Carter is a creature of the modern era of sci-fi blockbusters: Bloated with visual excess, simplistic in its narrative structure and characterizations, and more or less totally overtaken by galloping action sequences in its third act. On that level, it’s actually not a bad entry in the genre, and is better put together than most. But what really saves John Carter is the way the charm and devil-may-care wit of its source material shines through, especially in the first half.
At the outset of the film we are introduced to Helium and Zodanga, two warring cities on Mars. (Referred to as “Barsoom” in the native tongue.) The cities’ citizens and rulers wear clothes and battle gear that seems ripped from some alternate-reality version of imperial Rome. Their technology is both sufficiently advanced to make flight possible, and still so primitive as to be based on gears and basic combustion. They do battle with swords and guns, and they still govern themselves with kings and princesses and the like.
John Carter (played by Friday Night Light’s Taylor Kitsch) is brought from Earth to Mars by a mix-up on the part of the Therns, a race of space-and-time traveling immortals who have just handed the ruler of Zodanga (Dominic West) a super-weapon with which to finally subjugate Helium once and for all. There he falls in with the Tharks, a race of low-tech tribal aliens with green skin and four arms – rather obvious metaphorical stand-ins for Native Americans. The Tharks nearly kill him before taking him in as one of their own, in a fine example of secretly-vulnerable, aggression-based male camaraderie.
Two rival leaders of the Tharks are voiced by Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church respectively. In terms of special effects, the tribe is the movie’s pinnacle: While entirely computer-generated, their physicality is consistently believable, their presentation strikes a healthy balance between realism and artistic license, and their expressions are some of the most richly drawn and sympathetic that I’ve seen.
Stripped of his last options, the king of Helium (Ciarán Hinds) has agreed to a marriage between Zodanga’s ruler and his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in order to establish peace and save his people from annihilation. When Dejah flees and falls in with the Tharks as well, it’s up to Carter to overcome the disillusionment, heartbreak, and self-loathing the American Civil War left him with, once again believe in a cause and save the day. To this end, he is helped by the extraordinarily convenient coincidence that evolving on a planet with higher gravity has provided him a much more powerful skeletal and muscular structure than any comparable creature on Mars – which leaves him capable of delivering death-dealing punches and, a la Superman, literally leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
You can see where all this is going. It’s a world that modern cinema would seem incapable of addressing without a certain ironic wink –just to less us know director Andrew Stanton, in his first live-action film, is not so uncool as to take this too seriously. But to its credit, John Carter is exactly that uncool. The film accepts its proceedings with a wide-eyed, swashbuckling earnestness. This establishes a fundamental goodwill early on that sustains it through the flaws in its storytelling. I suspect Burrough’s source material has a lot to do with that.
The cast does an admirable job all around. Hinds, West, and Mark Strong as the leader of the Therns, are all dealing with roles they could play in their sleep, and they pull them off with the expected panache. As for Kitsch himself, he makes for a rugged and amiable hero, and I won’t be surprised if he has a sizeable movie career ahead. (I’ll happily watch him in Battleship.) Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite have the gravitas to get over the hump when John Carter’s cornier, rah-rah, prepare-for-battle speeches start showing up. Rather like Sam Worthington, Kitsch is something of a poor man’s Russell Crowe.
The real prize here is Collins as the Martian princess. She’s extraordinarily alluring — though she does fit a bit too neatly into the svelte, pale-eyed, raven-haired beauty look – and she delivers her performance with a combination of strength, pride and pathos that leaves the rest of the cast racing to catch up. The film gives her a decent amount to do and some respectable action sequences but, in what is hands-down its greatest loss, the filmmakers sideline her for the second half. To be frank, concentrating on Dejah as the protagonist and relegating Carter to side-kick would’ve delivered a superior film.