John Carter Is as Plain as the Name
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 9 Mar
DVD Release Date: June 5, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: March 9, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Run Time: 132 min.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Actors: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston
Christians spend a lot of time condemning Hollywood for undermining their faith, so it’s refreshing to find Christians working in Hollywood. It’s particularly encouraging when those Christian artists turn out to be widely admired in their field. Andrew Stanton is one such filmmaker, a Christian who has spoken about his faith while creating and publicizing two of the best films of the 2000s: Finding Nemo and Wall-E, both by Pixar.
Now Stanton has been given a gigantic budget—reportedly $250 million—to write (with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon) and direct an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 short story “A Princess of Mars.” The resulting movie, John Carter, frustrates. The money is there on the screen, with often impressive, if derivative, special effects. The acting is satisfactory, considering that the human actors spend much of their time interacting with CGI creatures. But the story never quite comes together, leaving a dissatisfying sense of what might have been. John Carter isn’t terrible, it’s just OK. But it could have been much more.
The movie’s opening stretch, which introduces Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, X-Men Origins: Wolverines) from Virginia, is its best. Stanton has done a nice job of giving the film an authentic Old West period feeling, but just as we’re settling into the film’s environment, Carter is transported to Mars, known by its inhabitants as Barsoom. There he’s drawn into another civil war between warring regions Helium and Zodanga. Helium’s leader, Tardos Mars (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black), thinks he can avoid war with Zodanga leader Sab Than (Dominic West, Arthur Christmas) by giving Than the hand of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), in marriage. Not surprisingly, Dejah isn’t thrilled with that plan, or with the revealing bridal gown she’s forced to wear through much of the film (“I find it a bit vulgar,” she says). John Carter to the rescue!
There aren’t many surprises in this story of a man who fights for a woman’s honor and on behalf of a group of overmatched warriors, and who gradually comes to identify with those he’s defending. John Carter is more about how the story is presented—the visual delights of the landscape of Mars and its inhabitants. It’s here that the movie excels, with flying war planes and creatures that put viewers into another world.
Too bad that the human characters jar us from that place anytime they open their mouths. Kitsch acquits himself well, as do West and Hinds, but Collins’ personality is never more memorable than the bridal gown with which she’s saddled. The appearance of excellent character actor Mark Strong as Matai Shang is bothersome; didn’t we see Strong in a similar role in last summer’s Green Lantern?
But it’s the story’s language, not its cast or characters, that may be a stumbling block for some. Some of Burroughs’ character names might have thrilled audiences in the early twentieth century, but they make for a good test case as to whether today’s viewers are likely to enjoy John Carter. For instance, when you hear the name “Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks,” do you nod soberly and consider the hierarchy of an alien species, or do you snort derisively? If the latter, stay away from John Carter, which has a Zodenga, a Tardos, a Helium and other names and terms that might be a distraction. Even a literary light of the caliber of Michael Chabon, who is credited as one of the screenwriters, can only do so much with Burroughs’ original story.
More troublesome is the central romance between Carter and Princess Dejah, which never rises above cartoonish posturing. Flashbacks to the marriage Carter has left behind on Earth are more affecting, albeit brief. In fact, those moments showing life on Earth are a reminder that the story worked best on that terra firma—a problem for a film that spends two hours of its two-hour-and-15-minute running time on Mars.
Burroughs’ story has served as a template for many science-fiction stories and films that followed it, so it never feels less than familiar. That’s not grounds for criticizing the film—familiar stories told well have their pleasures. The problem with John Carter is that so little of the film stands out or sticks in one’s memory. Stanton has said that he hopes to make a trilogy of films about Carter, but based on this first entry, one chapter will probably be enough. John Carter doesn’t send us out of the theater angry, but neither does it leave us wanting more.
- Language/Profanity: “Go-dam-”; “where the hell”; “hell” again appears in a subtitle; “good God”; “dam- you.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: None.
- Sex/Nudity: Kissing; revealing bridal outfit for Dejah; a man urinates, and we see the stream of urine; bare-chested men.
- Violence/Crime: We hear of, but don’t see, a man who has dropped dead; fist fights; guns aimed and fired; man struck with the butt of a gun; head-butts; Indians and soldiers have a shootout; bullet wound to the backside; sword fight; John Carter is beaten; an alien is branded with a hot iron; John Carter fights giant white apes and, in one gory sequence, emerges from one of the beasts covered in blue blood.
- Religion/Morals: Goddess worship; “goddess help me”; “it is the will of the goddess”; “thank you, goddess”; Dejah’s forced marriage to Sab is key to the story.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at email@example.com.