To get the obvious out of the way, John Carter isn’t the worst film ever made or even especially horrible, and anyone who says that it is needs to stop reviewing movies’ budgets and start paying attention to what’s onscreen. I paid attention. Except for one time, when I nodded off. I seem to have missed the introduction of the Martian pig-blob-pooch (I can’t recall the thing’s exact name [Editor’s note: Woola!]) that would later come to the hero’s rescue, much as other loyal dogs have come to the rescue of the heroes in such affectionate tongue-in-cheek throwbacks as The Artist and The Adventures of Tin Tin. John Carter is certainly a throwback, but it isn’t tongue-in-cheek or even noticeably affectionate. If the director, Pixar wizard Andrew Stanton, has any feelings about the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs — on whose novel A Princess of Mars the film is based, and whose Tarzan series has inspired many white-people-go-native sagas over the ensuing century — then he doesn’t share them with the viewer. There’s no wonder or elation or even dopy sincerity here — just a high level of proficiency and, yes, a lot of expensive CGI. Hence the impulse to review the budget. And to snooze.
Burroughs’s book, published 100 years ago exactly, was the first installment in his “Barsoom” (i.e., Mars) series, which centered on Civil War vet John Carter, who is transported to the red planet by a medallion belonging to the all-powerful Therns. Actually, his body stays behind while a copy of him goes to Barsoom and inhabits what we’d now call an avatar. On Barsoom, he encounters the warring Red Men of Zodanga (Zodangans), led by Sab Than; the Heliumites, lead by Tardos Mors and his daughter, Deja Thoris; the savage Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas; and the protean, highly manipulative Therns, led by Matai Shang. I think you can see part of the problem here. The names are howlers, and no leading actor can remain credibly manly while uttering the word, “Barsoom.” Linda Hunt might have brazened out her introduction in Dune — “I am the Shadout Mapes!!!” — but Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, is no Linda Hunt. For one thing, he has the power to pogo all over the Barsoomian landscape, which has the unfortunate effect of adding to our perception of him as a lightweight. And he also keeps his feelings to himself. Carter does not want to get involved in other peoples’ problems because the last people he cared about, his beautiful wife and child, came to a bad end and he had to bury what was left. So he mostly looks morose and apathetic. When he does at last commit to the Heliumites (if you think this is a spoiler, you’ll probably like the movie), we get the hilarious spectacle of Stanton cutting back and forth between Carter digging a grave on Earth and Carter hacking away at heaving hordes of CG Tharks on Barsoom.
Speaking of a heaving Barsoom, it is Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who finally stirs Carter’s feelings. (“We may have been born worlds apart, but I know you, John Carter.”) In addition to being a brilliant scientist who discovers — to the alarm of the Therns’s Matai Shang (a bald Mark Strong) — the “ninth ray,” she has a face as strong-boned and handsome as Kitsch’s is soft and pretty. As she strides in a teeny loincloth on long, muscular limbs through a sea of CG creatures, you can almost feel the millions of little zeroes and ones around her standing at attention. Mine certainly did. Eventually, she must shed the loincloth and slip into a gown in which to marry the scheming Sab “Death to Helium!” Than (Dominic West) in hopes of uniting the Helimites and Zodangans. Fortunately, the gown both plunges to around her navel and is slit up to her ribcage, and the high winds of Barsoom are kind.
Visiting the Museum of the Moving Image a few months back, I caught ten minutes of the Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serial on a big screen and discovered that what had thrilled me as a child on Saturday mornings looked mighty threadbare and limp. The Crabbe Flash Gordon serials were better but not that much better, and yet they have a cherished place in film history. So is it really fair for us to get worked up hating this respectable Buck Rodgers/Avatar imitation, especially when Burroughs’s original inspired the works against which it’s being compared? The effects are good, and there’s a rousing battle in a Thark arena in which Carter and his friends face off against two giant blind white apes. (“Let them be crushed like unhatched eggs!”) Michael Giacchino’s score manages to sound wondrously fresh and adventurous. Why do we feel the urge to ridicule? Because of what’s offscreen, of course. The idea that the fate of the head of a major Hollywood studio might hang on the kind of film that once cost a buck and a quarter (and made a lot of little kids happy anyway) says too much about the state of film culture circa 2012.
What depresses me most about John Carter is the cast. For a long time, good actors who couldn’t get traction in movies took safe TV gigs, acknowledging in interviews that perhaps they’d sold out their talent but they needed the money and, hey, their families liked seeing them for dinner every night. Sometimes they’d get meaty movie roles and you’d glimpse all that wasted potential, the actor waking up onscreen before your eyes and rediscovering the edge that years of TV glibness had worn down. But now, in this age of the all-mighty comic book movie franchise, the situation is reversed. Look at this cast: Kitsch from Friday Night Lights, West from The Wire, Bryan Cranston (who plays an Army officer on Earth) from Breaking Bad — shows that are the best of the best, that inspire everyone involved to do the work of their lives. And now they’re bouncing on wires against green screens, counting their money in their heads as a way of hiding their boredom, thinking how much less dumb they looked on the boob tube.