There is a moment in the movie John Carter where our eponymous hero is fighting an absurdly pitched battle against dozens of the green, tusked, four-armed Tharks. Because he's an Earthman on Mars, Carter has super-strength, and he slays Thark after Thark. The bodies pile up around him in a tableau whose absurdity bleeds into pathos as he repeatedly flashes back to burying his family after an Indian attack left them burned alive in their home. With each SMACK of Carter's sword, we flash to the SMACK of his shovel churning dirt into the grave of his wife and daughter. It's an electrifying scene because it does the improbable — it turns a cartoonish fight into something that genuinely reflects the horror of war.
Unfortunately, moments like this in John Carter are few and far between. But when they come, they remind you of how magnificent this flick could have been. Ultimately, the problem with John Carter is that it's perhaps too true to its origins, a pulp story by Edgar Rice Burroughs that was retro-futuristic even when it was first published a century ago, and feels even more awkwardly anachronistic today. It's an old-fashioned vision of tomorrow that weaves far too clumsily between modern sensibilities and dated ones. Spoilers ahead.
One reason we're drawn to retro futurism, or visions of tomorrow from the past, is that there's a kind of crazy, adorable wrongness to them. We chuckle at nineteenth century visions of flying contraptions and glass cities. The central conceit of John Carter, that there are ancient civilizations on Mars, is another laughable retro-futuristic misconception — especially in an era when we have robots wandering across the empty, seemingly lifeless Martian sands. But instead of playing this idea for campy humor, ala Mars Attacks or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, John Carter writer and director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) has tried to update it as a serious adventure for the present day. And that's a bold move.
In some ways, Stanton's daring effort is successful. As many critics have already said, the beautiful vistas of Mars and its incredible cities — one a breathtaking walking city and another a swirling confection that rises in silver spires from the craggy red landscape — are special effects perfection. The Tharks steer well clear of the Jar Jar zone, and the other aliens we meet (including the white humanoid Martians who are inexplicably called "Red Men") are all on suitably awesome quests to save the planet, fight the bad guys, etc. Their flying machines are steampunk done right, and you'll marvel at the ancient monuments of a great Martian civilization that fell when the planet's seas dried up. The acting is also unexpectedly great, with everybody from Taylor Kitsch as John Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the princess of Helium city, delivering heroic performances that generally manage to avoid being cheesy.
The problem, in short, is the plot. Really I should say plots, because there are a lot of them, and they fail to fit together or go anywhere most of the time. First of all, the film's writers made the bad decision to include a frame story where Edgar Rice Burroughs is a character — he's the nephew of John Carter, who uncovers the events we see in the movie by reading his uncle's diary. This launches a whole bunch of unnecessary subplottery and time hopping that we don't need. We begin in Burroughs' day (the early 1900s), but then jump backward in time to the post-Civil War period when the devastated John Carter has lost his family and lost the war, and now he just wants to mine for gold so he can become rich.
After escaping conscription into the US government's war against the Apache in Arizona, escaping jail, and escaping some angry Apache, Carter finally stumbles by accident into the goldmine he's been looking for. But it turns out the goldmine is actually a secret teleportation hub for a group of aliens who apparently spend all their time hanging around waiting for civilizations to fall or something like that (this would be another unexplained subplot). A series of shenanigans allow Carter to teleport to Mars, and that's when the swashbuckling begins. It's a pretty cool setup, and his first encounters with the Tharks are funny and well done.
But then Carter gets caught up in a war between the humanoid Red Men — a war the Tharks sneer that they wish would kill both sides, so they could run Barsoom (the natives' word for Mars) themselves. Dejah Thoris, a scientist and badass fighter who also happens to be princess of Helium, convinces the superpowered Carter to take her city's side in the war against Zodanga, though we're never entirely sure why. And then there are a ton of internecine and unexplained politics within Helium itself, including the fact that Dejah's father apparently has the power to marry her off to the enemy king, despite the fact that she's head of the science academy and clearly an autonomous citizen. Is this a backward culture where women are chattel, or a futuristic society where women are scientist-warriors? The answer, I suppose, is that it's a retro-futuristic society, imagined by an author who lived before women's suffrage in the United States. It's retro-futuristic in its colonial-era racial politics too, where the Tharks are painted as an alien analogue to the Apache, and the Red Men are the European powers struggling to control America. (I have no idea who the teleporting aliens are.)
As if all this weren't enough, Dejah's struggle with her father in Helium is echoed by another struggle between the Thark Tars Tarkis and his daughter Sola, who have become Carter's friends — and been cast out of Thark society in the process. Honestly, there is enough richness in the Thark society alone that it could have made an entire movie. Each time we return to Tars Tarkis' storyline, it feels like we're seeing a half-realized glimpse of something that would make sense if only more time were devoted to it.
Not that I'm saying this movie should have been longer. I'm just saying it needed fewer subplots.
At any rate, all these hopelessly messy subplots do add up to lots of fighting, and the fighting looks great. They also add up to some genuinely moving scenes like the one I mentioned earlier, as well as some extremely intriguing questions about what those teleporting aliens are doing on Barsoom. Frustratingly, however, these questions are never answered. Nor are more overarching questions, either, like what's really at stake in the war between Zodanga and Helium, or the enmity between the Tharks and the Red Men.
What's heartbreaking about watching John Carter, with its brilliance undercut by so many flaws, is that it's easy to imagine all the ways it could have succeeded if its creators could just have agreed on what the damn thing was really about. It feels like an entire trilogy worth of subplots all got crammed into one, confusingly edited mess. The real question is should you watch the movie to catch those moments of greatness, or skip it because you know you'll be frustrated by its problems? I would err on the side of watching. This is an imaginative bit of fun, and it looks fantastic splashed across a giant screen. (Do not, however, make the mistake of seeing it in 3D. It wasn't filmed in 3D, and the 3D frankly looks like crap, spoiling the visuals at every turn.) John Carter may not be the gamechanging retro-futuristic epic we were hoping for, but it's still worth checking out.