As good a job the movie does at world-building, setting up warring factions and dealing with two external factors to Mars and revealing things at reasonable beats to our audience proxy, we never get a good sense of geography in this far-out Barsoom place. They juggle a lot of things while they push the honestly pretty sluggish story forward, but it’s difficult to be invested in that most important thing — the planet — when we barely know what it looks like. John Carter is suffused with desert, and we see some areas in the Thark territory (the green alien-looking aliens), but we only get glimpses of the big cities that are eventually attacked.
John Carter is a lot like Avatar, and that’s — I know, I know — because Cameron was inspired by the Burroughs series in the making of Avatar, and by extension his career, Avatar being a project conceived in the mid-80s. In Avatar, James Cameron built a world, and wasn’t about to not show it, so we got a whole hell of a lot of Pandora. There were jungles and flying mountains and tangles of trees where the Na’vi hung out. As ridiculous as the Na’vi culture is, I felt more comfortable with their world than I did with Barsoom.
This is a complaint I didn’t expect to have, especially after seeing the movie, in 3D, by the way. Real-D 3D, in fact. It’s apparent that director Andrew Stanton and company were set to do the material and its legacy right and make an epic. Not only is the original story a big sweeping tale, it’s inspired some of the biggest names in science-fiction film, from Star Wars all the way up to Avatar. Their movie, called John Carter for whatever reason, needed to be huge in scope and scale.
I appreciate what this does for storytelling to some degree. As much as I thought it dragged in a few places, the treatment of the narrative’s formulaic nature really harkened back to traditional storytelling I always enjoyed out of Disney animated movies. By comparison, Tron Legacy very nearly seems complex. This A to B style is a welcome change — and in John Carter, there are heroes and villains, and heroes fight villains and the darkness inside the hero is quelled as he’s redeemed and overcomes his past. This is good old fashioned science-fiction fun, exactly what you’ve heard from critics.
What irks me about this decision to go epic, which for the record, was the only option, is that omce again, the runtime was too long. The story isn’t overly simple, but there are recognizeable steps in the narrative that every once in a while make the viewer feel like a precog — we know John’s gonna come around and help out. There wouldn’t be much a movie if he didn’t, so why’s it taking him so long? There’s anxiety and frustration there, as if the writers are holding the big action ending over our heads and making us wait. Well, not as if — that’s exaclty what it is, and the only explanation is that they feel compelled to hit these story beats in such a story template.
So it’s the story template, the same thing that killed Avatar nearly does in John Carter, though the excuse here is that Burroughs set the goddamn template with John Carter of Mars a hundred years ago. But this is an adaptation, lest we forget. With that said, the A Princess of Mars story seems to make a pretty successful transition to the screen, though I haven’t read the whole thing. And while the movie couldn’t have been called A Princess of Mars, there was no reason to call it John Carter over John Carter of Mars, which I assume is what it was throughout it’s unreasonably long development cycle, a saga in itself. The title screen (which shows up at the end of the movie, a new trend) even says “John Carter of Mars,” but that’s perhaps a reflection on the character’s arc more than miscommunication between creators and execs.
I left the theatre yesterday feeling a little confused. I enjoyed some parts, was impatient through most of it, and kind of missed the world when the movie was over, but wouldn’t really want to return. The characters were charming, but there’s an interesting dynamic going on here — there characters spend the movie figuring each other out. They don’t operate on the same plane, which makes dialogue interesting, but different. I don’t know how I feel about it. The acting was good all around. I’m a big fan of Dominic West, but he didn’t get too much play here.
So in the end, unfortunately, one of the key highlights of John Carter was the 3D trailer for Prometheus at its front. It’s good however, to have such a pulpy story given a mature, modern treatment, as this is Hollywood afterall. I remember seeing a still from Avatar of Col. Quarritch holding a futuristic pistol with the alien planet in the background and thinking Christ — this could be a still from fucking Saturn 3 or something. But it was actually from a Best Picture-nominated (not that that makes much of a difference to me, personally, it’s more a reflection on the popular audience), billion-dollar making movie. I appreciate John Carter and Avatar as signs of things to come — people are taking the genre more seriously, and getting recognition for it. Indeed, Children of Men is an incredible and important science-fiction film, but it’s downright underrated. When the next Children of Men came out just three years later — District 9 — it wasn’t as overlooked, wasn’t overlooked at all that is.