Best Flop I've Seen Since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

The failure of John Carter to perform at the box office serves to remind me, once more, that my definition of 'good' and that of the broader public intersect only rarely.

For those who don't know, John Carter, né A Princess of Mars, is an early twentieth century science-fantasy action-adventure romp. It's a purely old-school adventure movie, almost pulp in its lighthearted enjoyment of the sweeping vistas, fantastical technologies, half-naked heroes (male and female) and, of course, sword fights. Because no matter how advanced a civilization's technology may be, if you want a really good adventure story, you need to work a swordfight in there, somewhere. The basic story is that John Carter of Virginia is swept to Mars, called Barsoom by the indigenous inhabitants, through an accidental encounter with an enigmatic techno-wizard. Once there, Carter finds his Earth-bred muscles more than a match for both the gravity and inhabitants of Mars, to the point that he can barely walk without catapulting himself into the sky at first, and before he truly understands how much more fragile the people of Barsoom are he accidentally kills one with a single blow. Caught up by the green-skinned, four-armed Tharks, thinly disguised indigenous North Americans right down to being disdainful of the more European-like 'red' Martians, Carter intervenes in an airship battle to save the Princess Dejah Thors from the clutches of the warlord Sab Than, and gets swept up in the millennium-old war between Thors' Helium and Than's Z, putting him ultimately on a collision course with the mysterious techno-wizards who back Than for reasons all their own.

If the story sounds familiar, well, odds are you've seen it somewhere before. Carter's Mars-bound capabilities were one of the inspirations of the early Superman (when he could only leap, not fly), and no less than George Lucas has claimed the stories influenced him immensely. This can actually be a problem for John Carter, for the simple reason that while the stories introduced many of the science-fiction action-adventure, by this point they are cliches, nonetheless. To its credit, though, the movie ultimately transcends as many of the cliches as it falls prey to. The princess may need rescuing, but she's far from helpless, and while there's a bit of a 'Mighty Whitey' element to Carter's interactions with the Tharks, there's far less than in, say, Avatar or The Last Samurai or the like. And of course, while airships may be something of a worn-out signifier of being on a strange new world, it's hard to think of any nearly so pretty as the ones in John Carter.

Which isn't to say the movie doesn't have flaws. The opening is unnecessarily long and slow, with a completely pointless flashback to the first meeting of Than and the techno-mage Therns that really should have been inserted in as a story told by Thors later, if it had to be there at all. Then there's a bunch of running around for reasons you literally will not learn until the end of the movie, where they only half pay off. Really, the story could have skipped clear up to Burroughs arriving at the house to read the journal without damaging the storyline, and it would have greatly improved the flow of the early scenes. There are also a few rough character edges; Thors declares she cannot marry Than, even for the sake of peace, because of his monstrous ways, but in most of Than's scenes he appears to be no more or less bloodthirsty a monster than you'd expect the leader of a city at war for a thousand years to be. There's also an underdeveloped incident with one of the female Tharks repeatedly bullying another, the ultimate reason for which the viewer is left simply to guess. And of course, the Therns themselves are a bit weak in their ineffability; while it makes perfect sense that neither Carter nor Thors nor Than himself really know who they are or what they truly want, it makes them rather hard to take seriously as villains. They appear to have no real aim, just the maintenance of the status quo until Mars' biosphere collapses entirely, and the only explanation is an off-hand comment that they somehow feed on the process. Are they planetary vampires? Are they nourished by certain chemical by-products of the process? Are they simply being poetic? The movie never really tells us, and ultimately that's probably the biggest mark against it.

Still and all, though, it's a very solid action-adventure film. Part spectacle and part character piece, John Carter does an admirable job of keeping the viewer solidly entertained for nearly the entirety of its run; certainly there are no stretches so dull and pointless as, say, pod-racing. If you're looking for a fun way to spend an evening, you could certainly do worse than to go see John Carter. And hey, if it does well enough on dvd, it may even get the sequels it so clearly wanted to set up this time around.

A fellow can dream, at least.

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