The tragedy of modern moviegoing at the multiplex level is that a movie lives and dies by the quality of its marketing. If a studio doesn’t know how to package its own creation then no one can be bothered to realize what it is, much less give it a fair chance. Today’s moviegoers are too bedazzled with options at theaters and at home to investigate an option that isn’t tied up in a neat bow and the entertainment press is all too happy to bury a studio flick if it doesn’t have a blockbuster opening weekend.
Thus, it is frighteningly easy for a potential hit to fall through the cracks if the studio fumbles the marketing ball… and it’s unlikely that any big-budget film will be marketed worse this year than John Carter. This $200 million adaptation of a classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel was buried by a stupidly abbreviated title that omitted the two crucial words “Of Mars” from its ending, thus leaving the average moviegoer thinking the film was some sort of historical biography. Combine that with a vague, utterly ho-hum ad campaign and you have a formula for pre-determined box office disaster.
This is tragic because John Carter is the rare popcorn-movie blockbuster that brings an old-fashioned, utterly heartfelt spirit of adventure to its pursuit of spectacle. As created by Burroughs, Carter is the archetypal “accidental visitor to another planet,” the kind of character that later icons like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers took their cues from. On earth, Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an ex-soldier of the Civil War era, a man with a broken life who wants an escape. While dodging foes — Indians and the military — he happens into a cave and has a run-in with some otherworldly technology that zaps him elsewhere.
As Carter soon discovers, that elsewhere is the planet Mars (known to locals as Barsoom). In short order, he discovers that the planet’s gravity gives him some special abilities that he wouldn’t have on Earth and that he is surrounded by a number of strange races fighting for the destiny of Mars. He finds an ally and potential love interest in Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess who is on the run from problems of her own. As he attempts to find a way home, he comes to realize that he might have found the escape he was looking for — and that it will require him to fight once more to secure its future.
However, don’t let that somewhat cerebral synopsis fool you — John Carter is designed like the cliff-hanger serials of yesteryear, delivering slam-bang action of the fantastic variety in every reel that dovetail effectively with a series of nifty plot twists that keep advancing the plot in fresh new directions. It’s refreshing to see a modern event movie where the storytelling and an exotic, multifaceted setting is as important as the spectacle.
Another distinguishing quality of John Carter at the script level is that it has a sense of humor but never succumbs to cynical modern irony or awkwardly inserting comic relief to appease marketing concerns. The bits of humor here are organic, flowing from the situations in a way that helps endear Carter and the other characters to the audience rather than poking fun at them. The result has a wink in its eye but never cops out on the sense of wonder and excitement it has for the story it tells.
Director Andrew Stanton, previously a director and writer on several Pixar movies, brings the necessary sense of grandiosity to this two-planet narrative, effectively blending unearthly desert locales with well-crafted CGI to give the film a look that is classical and futuristic all at once. The creature designs are convincing when blended in with the flesh and blood actors — particularly the tall, multi-armed and green Thark race — and the Martian technology has a likeably regal-by-way-of-medieval look, particularly the flying war-ships that look like they flew in from the cover of the Yes album, Fragile.
That said, Stanton never allows the film’s sense of scope to obscure the characters that drive it forward. He makes sure the action has meaning by infusing the plot turns and fight scenes with meaning via the characters’ struggles with each other, not to mention the inner struggles that complicate their choices. Indeed, the most satisfying bit of action in the film is a scene where Carter takes on a veritable army of attackers to protect Dejah as flashbacks reveal the past tragedy that he was running from on Earth. The emotions of the past inform the action of the present and the resulting scene is moving in a way you rarely get from an action sequence.
Finally, strong performances ensure the fantastical storyline doesn’t drift off into the either. Kitsch has a fresh-faced charm that is free of action-hero posturing as Carter and Collins is easily the most kick-ass female heroine to roll down the multiplex pike in a long time. There are also strong performances from Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton in voice characterizations as the CGI-infused Tharks: Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is a charmingly brusque barbarian with a heart of gold while Morton does subtler work as a humble Thark misfit who discovers her destiny alongside Carter. Elsewhere, there are worthy turns from Ciaran Hinds as a troubled Martian ruler, Dominic West as a scheming rival with eyes for Dejah and Mark Strong as a mysterious cosmic character who isn’t as peaceful as his demeanor suggests.
Simply put, John Carter delivers everything you want from a popcorn-movie blockbuster: excitement, romance and unearthly sights, all delivered with thoughtful craft and a surprising amount of heart. It’s the kind of movie that you thought Hollywood forgot how to make, which makes its betrayal by bad marketing all the more heartbreaking. Catch it if you can — it’s a rare occasion where you get a whole epic’s worth of adventure for the ticket price.
(A Word About John Carter And 3-D: if you can still see John Carter at the theater, don’t bother with the 3-D. As with too many Hollywood event movies, this film was given the post-conversion 3-D treatment and you’ll essentially be paying more money for something the original image was never intended for anyways.)