Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs series, John Carter (which should have been John Carter of Mars), reminded me of one of the great movie quandaries: How do actors get through their lines in certain types of movies with a straight face?
What kind of movies? Science fiction and fantasy movies are an obvious choice. Religious films, especially where the character in question has to speak some secret language (this applies to TV shows too, Supernatural I’m looking at you) are also in this list. And it’s always the most respected actors who have to say the silliest lines.
This is not any different in John Carter. Willem Defoe as Tars Tarsus, the Jeddak of the Tharks, has that honor in this movie. That sentence alone was a tongue twister. Luckily, Defoe is doing a voice and we don’t actually have to watch him say these things. We do have several actors from HBO’s Rome reuniting for John Carter: Ciaran Hinds (Julius Ceasar) as Tardos Mors the Jeddak (ruler) of Helium, James Purefoy(Marc Antony) as Kantos Kan, Hinds’ right-hand man once again, and Polly Walker (the scheming Atia of the Julii) voicing the Thark Sarkoja. All of them at one point or another is called upon to say something silly.
It is a testament to Andrew Stanton that none of it seems terribly silly. The movie opens on a battle between two warring factions on Barsoom, our Mars. Mark Strong, who has been making a good career for himself playing the baddie, shows up as Matai Shang, a somewhat omnipotent being, who gives Seb Than (The Wire‘s own McNulty, Dominic West) the brute leader of one of Zodanga, the other warring faction, the “9th ray” which allows him to create and destroy.
But before we get into Martian politics too much, we’re back on Earth following Tim Riggins. I mean John Carter (Friday Night Light‘s Taylor Kitsch). He no sooner sends a telegram to his nephew Ned (Edgar Rice Burroughs himself) then he passes away, leaving his vast fortune and personal diary to his nephew.
The diary reveals that when searching for a cave of gold, Carter managed to transport himself to Mars. And that’s when the real story begins. He hooks up with the Tharks, four-armed 9-ft tall green aliens with giant tusks and a combative society, befriends Woola (more on him later), and saves a princess, Dejah Thoris played by Lynn Collins. Carter’s ability to jump over great distances due to the difference in gravity between Mars and Earth, makes him an invaluable asset to the Tharks and later to Helium in their fight against Seb Than and the Zodangans.
I have not read the Burroughs Barsoom novels, but as convoluted as the above paragraph seems, it is not hard to follow in the film. The names and words become clear through dialog and action and if you can follow any of the Lord of the Rings films, this is not different.
Everyone does a decent job in the film. Kitsch was a bit too low-key throughout, but managed the stoicism of a Civil War vet who lost it all. Lynn Collins’ accent was serviceable and she had a good sense of fun and adventure throughout. Dominic West clearly relished having a really bad guy to sink his teeth into and Mark Strong was sufficiently mysterious/malevolent as Matai Shan. But of course, as so many animal sidekicks are wont to do, Woola steals the show. What is Woola? I will leave that to the image below:
Stanton, who directed Pixar’s Wall-E and Finding Nemo (my 2 favorite Pixar films actually) paired up with a few other writers on John Carter’s script, including Michael Chabon (!) who wrote among many others, the brilliant Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. So the script could have been better, the pacing more uniform, dialog tightened up here and there. But the action sequences worked well. The effects were mostly seamless, and even without opting for the 3D experience, you are immersed into the wide vast aridness of Mars. The accompanying soundtrack by Pixar standby, Oscar winner and Lost composer Michael Giacchino was exciting and non-instrusive.
However, as competent and occasionally thrilling as the movie was, I left thinking “it could have been better”. Between its amazing pedigree (Stanton, Chabon, the slew of talented mostly British actors) and a well-fleshed out mythology to work with, the movie should have ended with my immediate desire to see it again. But that didn’t happen. While you knew much was at stake, it didn’t always feel that way. The viewer’s connection with the characters didn’t go much deeper than the surface.
It is currently being declared a dud at the box office, losing out to another mythical creature, the Lorax. It is unfortunate because John Carter’s creators clearly had the best intentions in mind and hit their marks more often than not.
It might not have been a success, but at least this wasn’t another Green Lantern.