erik lundegaard

John Carter

John Carter (2012)


I’m surprised “John Carter” is as good as it is.

It really shouldn’t work. Writer, director and creative force Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”) adapted a 100-year-old sci-fi/fantasy story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was serialized in 1912, before world wars and the modern assembly line and women’s right to vote, and made a good 21st-century adventure yarn out of it. Sometimes that yarn is a bit threadbare, sure, but mostly it’s solid. Given the source material, it has no right to be.

Yet Disney is going to lose $200 million on it. It’s the biggest bomb of the year, the decade, the century. This. Not any of the “Transformers” movies, not any of the “Twilight” series, but this. That’s what I don’t get. It’s not that audiences decided to stay away from “John Carter”; it’s what they go to.

Battle of the HBO stars

I admit I cringed during the opening. We watch a mid-air battle, very swashbuckly, while a voiceover attempts to sort out who’s who on Mars. Zodanga? Barsoom? Helium? It made me long for a “Star Wars” crawl so I could read it all myself. It made me long for simple phrases like “Rebel” and ”Empire” so I’d know who to root for:

Mars. So you name it and think that you know it. The red planet, no air, no life. But you do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom. And it is not airless, nor is it dead, but it is dying. The city of Zodanga saw to that. Zodanga, the predator city. Moving, devouring, draining Barsoom of energy and life. Only the great city of Helium dared resist, stood strong, matched Zodanga airship for airship, holding fast for a thousand years. Until one day the rulers of Zodanga became cornered in a sand storm and everything changed.

Sab Than (Dominic West) seems set upon, and he’s played by that McNulty dude from “The Wire,” so I should root for him, right? Wrong. He’s from Zodanga, the predator city, and he’s cornered. But then Matai Shang (Mark Strong) appears, and gives him a crackly, veiny blue weapon from “the Goddess,” with which he routs the Heliumites. Because it’s Mark Strong, we know it can’t be good. Does that guy ever play someone who’s not totally evil? Can’t a brother get a romantic comedy now and again?

At this point we get title, JOHN CARTER, boom, and cut to Earth, New York City, 1881, and a “Sherlock Holmes” vibe. We see our title character (Taylor Kitsch) sending a telegram to his nephew, and introducing himself in James Bond fashion: “Carter. John Carter.” He’s also being followed. Then all of sudden he’s dead, and his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabra, who has a kind of Paul Dano vibe), is directed to read his journal. Which is how we get the rest of the story.

It begins, truly begins, in Arizona in 1868, when, instead of being a rich sonofagun, John Carter is a former Confederate cavalryman, and current gold prospecter, who simply wants more supplies. But he’s mocked at a supply outpost by two rowdies and a fight ensues. Then the U.S. Army shows up, tries to take him, and a fight ensues. Stanton uses humor and quick cuts to give us a sense of who John Carter is. He’s a fighter, humorless but hapless. His instinct, when threatened or trapped, is to punch and bolt. He’ll do this for much of the movie. It’s a good bit.

The Army, in the person of the equally hapless Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston), wants Carter to re-up, but John Carter is through with war. Civil War? Indian wars? He doesn’t care. But when several cavalrymen are set upon by a group of Indians, Carter returns to save Powell and we get this well-worn exchange. Powell: “I thought you didn’t care!” Carter: “I don’t!” Not a good bit.

They’re chased into a cave, the legendary Spider’s Cave, it turns out, which Carter has been searching for; and inside he finds what he was searching for: gold. He also finds a being with a crackly, veiny blue medallion, whom he kills. As it’s dying, he repeats its dying word: Barsoom. Poof! He’s transported to a different desert, a Martian desert, where the gravity is so light he has trouble walking. His tendency is to leap.

Freedom is short-lived. He’s quickly captured by Tharks: 10-feet-tall and green, with four arms, two tusks, and no noses. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), tries to communicate with the odd, jumping creature. He introduces himself, in the Thark language, then John Carter does the same in English: John Carter of Virginia. For much of the movie, he’ll be called “Virginia.” Another good bit.

Pretty soon we have our scoresheet filled out:

  • The Zodanga is the bad city, led by Dominic West of HBO’s “The Wire,” but really led by the villainous Mark Strong of “Sherlock Holmes,” who is a a kind of shapeshifter. He, it turns out, is the leader of the Therns, who feed off the wars of other races—like that alien entity Capt. Kirk and Kang laughed at in “The Day of the Dove” episode of “Star Trek.” Maybe Jerome Bixby was an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan.
  • Helium is the good city, peopled by tattooed folks who starred in HBO’s “Rome” (Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy). Ciaran, as Tardos Mors, is the leader, but he’s leading a losing war and is listening to offers, from Sab Than (“Wire” dude), for the hand of his daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). She’s hot and smart and wants to keep fighting. She totally hates the “Wire” dude.
  • The Tharks are a semi-brutal race who live in the desert. In the overall metaphor, they’re the Indians, the neutral observers in the civil war between the Martian city-states. They want the humanoids to destroy each other and leave them in peace.

Tharks have their own issues, of course. Thark babies appear to be born, or hatched, in an incubator in the desert. Those who don’t hatch on time are killed. “They are not our kind,” Tars Tarkas says of the slow hatchers. I love this detail. Most moviemakers would leave out such moral complexity but not Stanton. And Tars Tarkas, by the way, is the good one.

When the Martian civil war enters Thark territory, John Carter, using his super power, his amazing strength and jumping abilities, gets involved against his better judgment. He battles Sab Than, saves Dejah Thoris, discovers that he’s on Mars, gathers clues for how to get back to Earth. Then he and Dejah Thoris, and John Carter’s ostracized handler, Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), along with a big lumbering animal that is akin to a dog, with a monstrous head and a big blue tongue, are exiled to the barren Barsoom landscape. It’s a motley, bickering crew. Fun.

Is it a “Wizard of Oz” crew? “Oz” metaphors are overdone (see: “Star Wars”) but it seems to work here. The dog is the Cowardly Lion, Sola is the Scarecrow, Dejah is the Tinwoodswoman—her heart is revealed in the end—while our Dorothy, John Carter, somehow wound up in this strange place, where the rules don’t apply, and just wants to go home.

The world’s first superhero

I had no clue where the story was going. I liked that. Sure, I knew that JC and Dejah Thoris would get together; and I assumed he would eventually choose a side in the Martian civil war, despite his earlier admonitions against such actions, and that the side would most likely be Dejah Thoris’; and he would defeat McNutty and somehow get back to Earth, since, you know, we saw him there. I also began to wonder if maybe his death on Earth in 1881 wasn’t really a death. Another teleportation to Mars maybe?

But in terms of the A, B, C of the story, the “this-then-this,” I had no clue. This world was as new to me as it was to John Carter. Something to be said for that. “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty,” said Andrew Stanton in his TED talk earlier this year. That’s what he gives us.

Apprently Stanton pitched the movie as “Indiana Jones on Mars,” and it’s true: freeing himself from one trap, JC, like Indy before him, always winds up in another. Makes sense, too. Both “John Carter” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are based upon serials, magazine or movie, which foster this tendency as a means to encourage return visits by customers. The 1966 “Batman” TV show satirized this formula; we were too smart for it then. A decade later, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg streamlined it and popularized it for a whole new generation and we were hooked. We haven’t escaped their trap yet. We’re still living in their world.

In a sense, we’re still living in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ world. Much of “John Carter” points to the past—the Civil War, the swashbuckling. the princesses—but it also points to the future of cinematic storytelling: interplanetary travel and superheroes. Was John Carter the world’s first superhero? An argument can be made. He’s a reverse Superman 25 years before Superman. His powers increase away from Earth. He leaps tall Martian buildings in a single bound.

And yet: biggest box-office bomb of the century. Moviegoers go for its descendants: “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” and “Superman.” The original of what you want isn’t what you want. Someone should do a study.

—March 23, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard