John Carter Brings Pulp Back In A Super Sexy Silly Fashion So See It Immediately
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who’s a little tired of mass media sci-fi being Plus One. There’s a lowest common denominator imagination going around. Everything is just the real world Plus One sci-fi element. Stargate is the real world Plus One stargate. Battlestar Galactica is the real world (business suits! Slugthrowers!) Plus One insultingly Luddite ending for a show that was thirty percent CGI.
John Carter isn’t Plus One sci-fi. It’s more like plus a hundred. John Carter has a cute alien pet WHO IS ALSO THE FLASH. An alien race of attractive exhibitionists ALONGSIDE GREEN-SKINNED FOUR-ARMED PROUD WARRIOR RACE GUYS. An epic war between good and evil AND EVIL RIDES AROUND IN A CITY THAT EATS OTHER CITIES. It’s basically even more pulpy and out there than Avatar, which was, after all, just Earth except glowing blue and having six arms.
And I like that. It actually reminds me a lot of The Mummy, just with better CGI and a different bent to the imagination. You’ve got this kinda assholey guy who’s just good at fighting and he ends up in the middle of a Martian war. And not, like, Star Trek Mars where they just need a hammy actor to use basic logic to solve their dilemma. He’s got secret daughters and four-armed Mean Girls and master manipulators and WMDs and hot princesses to deal with. This is some crazy shit man.
John Carter is a former cavalryman from Virginia who fought in the Civil War, and like all the Confederate losers he ended up with a whooping case of angst afterwards. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t throw in a “but he’s not racist, not really” scene like in Jonah Hex. Although for all we know, he could be a foaming-at-the-mouth racist. Then again, he seems pretty accepting of green people, so who could accuse him of racism after that?
Carter’s bummed because his family died–apparently at the hands of roaming family-killers, who as you’ll know from Movie History 101 terrorized the Old West, determined to provide clean-cut heroes with an angsty backstory and roguish charm–and now he spends his time prospecting for gold, apparently so he can buy a new family. Unfortunately for him–well, actually quite fortunately, in a thematic sense–Carter is picked up by Bryan Cranston, who wants his help killing Apaches. But the movie isn’t called John Carter Of Indian-Punching, so Carter is like “dude, this is a Disney movie” and runs for it, ending up in a cave which holds both his gold and a Martian stargate. Since this isn’t “John Carter of the One Percent,” the latter is more important to the story. Carter is stargate’d to Mars, where a war is raging between the evil nation of Solange, led by the evil Sad Fang (sorry, I’m figuring this out phonetically, I didn’t stay for the credits), and the noble city of Helium (that can’t be right *Googles* it is), ruled by King Awesome Genes (c.f. his daughter, Dejah Thoris).
Both sides are being manipulated by the super-evil Ferns, who for the sake of cinematic convention have been changed from houseplants to Mark Strong. There’s also the Tharks, who are the most alien-y of the aliens, rather than the most tribal tattoo-y of the aliens. They’re like the Na’vi, only rather than being loaded up with two hundred years of white guilt and fetishization of the exotic, they have an actual ethos and cultural identity crisis going on. I liked that. A lot of the plot hinges on how the Tharks are pretty much assholes, just like Carter. Barsoom: Where everyone dresses slutty and everyone is a bit of an asshole.
Carter just wants to get back to Earth because life on Earth is sweet when you’ve got a cave of gold, not like on Mars where you have to fight giant white apes if you piss the wrong person off. But because of gravity and maybe Mars’ yellow sun (but probably not), Carter has superstrength and can double-jump like Super Mario, so everyone wants him on their side. They bribe him with stuff like cool names and getting to the last stage of a Campbellian Hero’s Journey, but he’s in more of a “war is hell” mood. Fortunately, he’s got half the movie for Dejah Thoris to convince him “You know what’s worse than war? Mark Strong.” I kinda like that the movie is pretty unambiguously pro-war. After all, if it weren’t for war, we’d all be speaking English right now.
Well, we’d at least be saying shit like “potato crisps.”
The whole story unfolds in a fun way; not so much the unfocused not-the-climax-yet filler of Prince of Persia so much as a globetrotting adventure. Things are always moving along, people are always finding out new stuff or jumping onto some crazy new mode of transportation, and yet while never descending into camp the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a lot of wit about how this would all seem to someone watching from the outside, without making every other line a one-liner. Carter’s game enough to think “Four arms and green skin. Got it” and move on. Maybe it’s because he’s from 1883, before the invention of sarcasm.
Now, keeping in mind that this is intended as something of a kids’ movie–albeit with Dejah Thoris’s wardrobe intended to turn some of the boys into men–here’s four caveats.
1. For a movie intended to be enjoyed by kids, it takes a while to get going. I don’t mean in terms of pacing, but just the timeline seems like it could be hard to figure out. We start off on Mars, with the time-honed classic of our narrator telling us who’s good and who’s bad (helpfully, they color-coordinate into red and blue, not, say, orange and green, which would confuse us). Then we jump forward in time to Edgar Rice Burroughs finding his uncle’s journal. That then jumps us back in time to after the stuff in the first prologue, with John Carter meeting Bryan Cranston (MR. WHITE!). After that, things get going, and the initially confusing plot points are reiterated, but still, it sets a bit of a bad tone.
2. This is kind of a minor issue, but I found myself nitpicking Dejah Thoris’s character. Now, she actually is a strong female character, even with the obligatory “dolled up in a fanservice outfit to wed the bad guy” scene. And with her spending most of the movie dressed in a… err… “Sexy Hawkman” Halloween costume. But then, everyone dresses that way except for Ciarán Hinds, who has a bit of a gut. I can imagine his character getting up into his forties, realizing he’s got a bit of a muffintop thing going on with his stripper outfit, and saying “*sigh* …time to dress in layers.”
But it’s Taylor Kitsch who gets the lion’s share of the kink meme moments, being mind-controlled by sexy evil bad guys with smooth, firm voices and being literally infantilized by Tharks and getting tied up like a hundred times… all in a loincloth. So I’m guessing there will be some kids realizing they’re no longer little girls: they’re little women.
I suppose as originally written by Burroughs, Dejah Thoris was portrayed in a more chauvinistic manner, and they’re amping up her character. Which is a good thing, and they have a clever way of making her a strong female character, having her be this brilliant scientist who is shown throughout the movie puzzling out stuff like how John Carter has superstrength and coming up with a new invention that threatens the Big Bads. Good stuff. But they also make her a master swordswoman, with the obligatory “I’ll save you!” said the man and then “Or will I save you?” from the woman. Which was even in Batman & Robin. And I think it just might be a bridge too far to have her be Princess Scientist Warrior Superfox. I just have this dialogue in my head.
Director Andrew Stanton: Alright, so our female lead is Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars. She’s a scientist who is on the verge of a major discovery that could change the fate of all Mars!
Andrew Stanton: She’s also a wise and caring ruler who struggles over the best course of action for her people, trying to balance the needs of her kingdom with her own wants and desires.
Disney: Meh. Make her an expert fighter who arbitrarily kicks ass once or twice, but also needs to be saved by the hero.
Andrew Stanton: So… like every other female character from the 90s onward.
Disney: Pretty much, yeah.
So I think she might actually have been a stronger character if she was just a brilliant scientist slash awesome ruler, without her having to be a badass on top of all that. But then, it is for kids, so there’s a good chance they’ll accept Princess Scientist Warrior Superfox.
3. Am I piling on this movie? I don’t mean to pile on this movie. Number three… they give John Carter an angsty backstory where he used to be a family man before his family died and then he Just Didn’t Care Anymore. I’m not spoiling anything, you know this is coming the first time he flashes back to his loving wife and junk. So he has to learn to love again (helpfully, it’s with Lynn Collins, who even Jason Voorhees could learn to love). Again, kid’s movie, so this is meant for an audience that isn’t as used to this trope as I am. But holy shit, is this a well-worn trope. I don’t think they even give his family names. They don’t even go into how or why his family died. He just seems to come home and go “Crap, family’s dead, I feel bad.”
This is partially redeemed by a surprisingly moving sequence late in the film, but still, isn’t there a better way to get John Carter to a place of Just Not Caring? I do prefer it to the other period piece cliche of having a White Man Who Accidentally Massacred A Bunch Of Indians And Now Has To Redeem Himself.
DIGRESSION: At this point, that story element has been used so many times that it’s actually gotten a bit exploitative. Like “Man, it’s great how we pointed out how racist people in the 19th century were. Now let’s go make another movie and not cast any Native actors whatsoever.” You can acknowledge racism in your movie without kind of turning it into a stock angst bit, like how Deadwood or True Grit did. They didn’t sugar-coat racism, but they also didn’t turn into it a cheap bit of pathos.
4. Like I said, Bryan Cranston is in this movie, but he gets left behind on Earth pretty early on. I suggest instead of a sequel, we reboot this series, Punisher style, to be about Bryan Cranston joining John Carter on Mars. I call it “Bryan Cranston and John Carter: Bros of Mars.”
All in all, this movie has a far better “We have to kill Mark Strong in the sequel” ending than Green Lantern.