“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.”
—Anton Ego, Ratatouille
John Carter is not new. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character is only a few years shy of celebrating his 100th birthday. The novel A Princess of Mars and its sequels have influenced science fiction and fantasy in innumerable ways. Without Burroughs there would be no Avatar. There would be no Superman. There would be no Star Wars.
Unfortunately this history has been forgotten by many. Most Star Wars nerds can parrot the fact that Lucas based his work off Hidden Fortress and The Searchers, but they surely haven’t seen either film. Those films are either too old or too foreign, and why watch an old/foreign film when there are Transformers movies to see? I find most fanboys have no patience for history. With that limited curiosity in mind it is unsurprising that the grandfather of pulp literature has been lost in the shuffle of the new and flashy.
But now, in an age filled with reboots, sequels, and prequels, director Andrew Stanton (the man that brought us Finding Nemo and WALL-E) has given us a John Carter that is stark and original just by being old fashioned and emotionally true. As Deadline breathlessly reports Carter‘s box office failure and the nerd culture decries the film as hackneyed and bland, I can’t help but feel like the titular character: lost on another world. But unlike Carter, I don’t care for what I find here.
Here’s a film that dares to spit in the face of contemporary Hollywood mentality: There are difficult names, a complex plot, and a pace that dares viewers to keep up. It’s a big budget feature that isn’t based on a toy line or comic book or 80s TV show. John Carter is a huge risk for Disney, and while it won’t pay off financially it sure as hell pays off artistically.
The funny thing is this isn’t an art-house film. This is an epic yarn in the tradition of Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur. The film’s massive budget has been heavily reported but this is the rare film where every penny is up on screen. The planet of Barsoom is so wonderfully realized and the inhabitants are at times breathtaking. The action sequences make great use of the various terrains and otherworldly vehicles. Stanton has crafted a fully realized world here that he takes great joy in showing us.
Reading all that back I realize I’m making John Carter sound like some sort of masterpiece. It isn’t. There are some issues here, particularly a major structural decision that kills a bit of suspense and only helps to confuse the slow-witted. But the film’s high points are so damn high that the imperfections fade into the background.
Among those highs are the characters Tars Tarkas, the chief of the Tharks played by Willem Defoe, and Woola, the space canine that accompanies Carter on his quest. Tars Tarkas is played ferociously by Defoe and the computer-generated beast gives the most human and fully realized performance of the whole piece. He is proud and gentle, strong and good humored. The Thark also gets the best bit of physical comedy in the entire film, a beat so perfectly played you’ll forget it happened between a man and a special effect. Woola is the film’s comic relief for the most part, but those parts are smartly played and all character based. He isn’t a clumsy goon or a farting oaf. He’s an enthusiastic companion, the best friend a warrior could have.
But my favorite character is yet to be mentioned. Here’s where I dedicate a small section to the Princess of Mars, Deja Thoris. As played by Lynn Collins, Deja is going to stir new feelings in a lot of the twelve year old boys seeing John Carter this weekend. But she isn’t played as the typical booth babe/damsel in distress. Deja is extremely capable of taking care of herself, so much so that one feels if Carter hadn’t shown up she would have figured out another way to save her people without him. Carter isn’t her knight in shining armor but instead a comrade in arms and a useful tool to get the job done. Lynn Collins is fantastic in the part. She knows exactly the kind of film she’s in and plays the notes to a tee. There is no question that Deja is the strongest female character to hit sci-fi since Alien‘s Ripley.
I suppose we can’t discuss Deja without looking at Carter, and unfortunately Taylor Kitsch’s performance falls into the category of “problems.” I think Kitsch is a fine actor, but he makes the contemporary young actor choice that Ryan Gosling and the like make: all inner turmoil and growly lines. It’s the James Dean style that everyone wants to emulate but no one can pull off. And it is all wrong for John Carter.
Despite that wrong acting choice Stanton and company still get audiences to connect with Carter. Part of the credit needs to go to composer Michael Giacchino (Up, LOST, Speed Racer). The man has proven a fine ability to pull emotion out of anything, and there is a sequence in John Carter that rivals the opening ten minutes of Up. The sequence (which I would rather not spoil in detail) is a perfect blend of smart editing choices and musical accompaniment, one that will be on the highlight reel for both Giacchino and Stanton when they recieve lifetime achievment awards years from now.
But what of John Carter years from now? I truly believe that the film will be a watershed: a flick that will inspire unsuspecting twelve year olds to get into science fiction in a big way and craft epics of their own in their backyards after doodling in their notebooks at school. if there was any justice John Carter would be a huge box office smash and bull shit like The Lorax and Project X would be the ones landing into theaters with thuds. But great art usually isn’t properly valued until it is given proper context and the ripples are properly measured. With any luck, the ripples caused by John Carter will be wondrous. In the meantime, I will continue to champion it. This film deserves to find an audience. I hope, dear reader, that you will be a part of it. This film needs friends.
John Carter is in theaters right now,