Thrilling Adventure Tales Case File #18: John Carter  

Thrilling Adventure Tales Case File #18: John Carter  

If those jerks James Agee and Walker Evans hadn’t selfishly already used it for their empathetic exploration of poverty and privilege, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would be a terrific name for a compilation of New Yorker profiles. The venerable magazine leans heavily toward erudite hagiography in its eloquent, effusive portrayals of the super-geniuses it covers. That’s certainly the tone of Tad Friend’s October 2011 profile of Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E as well as the then-upcoming John Carter, a big-budget, live-action, would-be tentpole movie based on a series of pulp novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs that Stanton devoured as a kid. 

It’s easy to see why an institution like The New Yorker might revere Stanton. As one of the driving forces behind Pixar, Stanton was and remains an essential part of the brain trust behind one of the most consistently brilliant and popular brands in the history of American entertainment. As a screenwriter, director, and voiceover artist on movies like the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Monsters, Inc., Stanton has made his corporate masters billions while winning two Academy Awards (at 46, he’s been nominated for six Oscars) as well as the hearts and minds of critics, kids, and movie-lovers the world over. 

Like the hilariously fawning profile of Mike Myers that The New York Times ran before the release of The Love Guru, Friend’s piece depicts Stanton’s faults as being inextricable from his strengths. If Stanton can be a control freak, arrogant, in constant need of validation, and incredibly strong-willed, the profile suggests, it’s only because he cares so deeply and passionately about everything he touches, just as The New York Times suggests Myers’ flagrant jackassery is a small price to pay for his comic genius. Friend acknowledges that John Carter has run into all manner of turbulence in its endless march to the big screen (filmmakers have been attempting to adapt it into a feature-length animated film since the ’30s, beginning with doomed attempts by Warner Bros. animator Bob Clampett), but suggests that’s a byproduct of Stanton’s eccentric but successful working methods. 

Pixar seems like a smooth-running, well-oiled machine that cranks out one classic after another, but according to The New Yorker piece, some of its most beloved films have troubled and painful production histories. The directors of Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille were both replaced deep into filming, while other films changed shape and tone radically over the many years it took for them to reach theaters. Monsters Inc. director Pete Docter describes Pixar’s leap-before-you-look approach to filmmaking thusly: “Everyone holds hands and jumps out of the airplane with the promise that they’ll build a parachute before they hit the ground.” That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, it’s proven to be shockingly, consistently successful. 

The New Yorker profile closes with an amusingly premature happy ending: Stanton attends a preview screening of the still-unfinished John Carter and is relieved that it goes swimmingly. But the audience’s enthusiastic response isn’t enough for a perfectionist like Stanton, who immediately commits himself to the hard but satisfying labor of making John Carter as good as it can possibly be. 

The article ends with John Carter’s future still cloudy, but by March the film had become a notorious flop, and the folks over at Vulture were eager to dance a merry jig on its grave. The Vulture piece puts much of the film’s failure on what it sees as Disney’s blind deference toward Stanton’s instincts and unwillingness to upset its golden boy, even if that meant losing hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. Then again, when a guy has made you billions, what’s a few hundred million dollars between friends?  Vulture reserves much of its vitriol for a pair of trailers it mocks as failing in antithetical but equally spectacular ways, beginning with a somber mood piece of a preview set to Peter Gabriel’s spooky cover of Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” that makes the film look like a sincere art movie instead of a big-budget blockbuster. These days, trailers are all about delivering the goods in the most ham-fisted manner imaginable, even if that involves giving away endings and prominently featuring climactic and closing scenes. But John Carter’s much-maligned teaser favors mood and suggestion over bombast and mindless spectacle. The teaser is enigmatic and evocative without giving away too much (or, Vulture would argue, enough) of the film it’s pimping, even if its tone does suggest an emo version of Avatar. 

Vulture holds the film’s next trailer to task for being nothing but mindless spectacle and bombast. In its reasoning, the trailer goes overboard with action and special effects without doing the basic work of establishing who the hell John Carter is and why we should care about him. 

This speaks to a larger commercial weakness. The name “John Carter” might have meant the world to Stanton as a boy, but while Tarzan has had a long life in many forms, Carter’s fame has faded over the years. The name “John Carter” means nothing to 98 percent of the audience. Yet the trailers and advertising don’t play up the book’s connection to Burroughs’ most famous creation (another shaggy, muscle-bound stranger in a strange land), Stanton’s Pixar pedigree, or the many films and filmmakers inspired by Burroughs. John Carter has been ripped off so many times by so many important filmmakers that it paradoxically can’t help but feel weirdly derivative of films (inspired by its source material) that hit screens decades before John Carter bombed. In the century-long lag time between the literary introduction of John Carter and this cinematic adaptation, many of Burroughs’ innovations became groan-inducing clichés. Like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Burroughs was prescient and visionary, yet today looks more than a little old-fashioned. 

Disney trusted Stanton’s instincts enough that it didn’t force a bankable movie star on him as a lead, even if the film did cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million and another hundred million to market. That’s an awful lot of money to invest in a movie starring a relative unknown from a critically adored but famously unpopular cult television show. As Carter, Friday Night Lights breakout star Taylor Kitsch delivers a commanding performance rich in charisma, earthy physicality, and brooding intensity. But putting a semi-unknown at the center of a hugely expensive film—John Carter would have needed to gross something in the area of $700 million just to break even, let alone justify the two sequels Stanton was eager to make—made an iffy commercial proposition even riskier. 

John Carter wastes no time digging itself into a deep hole with opening narration from Willem Dafoe declaiming, in a voice quaking with awe:

Mars. So you name it and think that you know it. The Red Planet. No air. No life. But you do not know Mars. For its true name is Barsoom, and it is not airless, nor is it dead. But it is dying. The city of Zodanga saw to that. Zodanga, the predator city. Moving, devouring, draining Barsoom of energy and life.

This exquisitely hokey narration establishes both the premise of the film and a tone of retro pulpiness that, depending on your perspective, is either old-fashioned and endearing or deliriously cheesy. This opening serves to remind us that we are squarely in the land of pulp fiction, a fantastical world filled with silly names and even sillier concepts. We can either scoff and give in to flashbacks of Dune and Battlefield Earth, or trust that all this cornball exposition will pay off somewhere down the road. I chose the second route. Otherwise, John Carter had the potential to be an extremely long 132 minutes. 

John Carter had weeks of extensive reshoots and a lengthy post-production, and at times, it feels like a wounded beast, most notably in a first act that delivers three separate openings, only one of them satisfying. After the opening narration, we’re hurtled indelicately to Mars, where a mysterious, shapeshifting alien (Mark Strong) from an enigmatic, powerful race known as the Thern delivers a powerful weapon to a brutal tyrant (played by The Wire’s Dominic West) so that he may rule Barsoom as a vicious dictator—with the aid and counsel of the Thern, of course. The artless exposition continues with a framing device that finds Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara of World’s Greatest Dad) attending John Carter’s funeral and being left both his estate and a journal containing clues concerning the nature of Carter’s “death” as well as the improbable nature of his life. Sabara delves into the journal, and we’re instantly transported to the film’s third and most satisfying opening, a rollicking sequence that introduces us to Carter as an angry young prospector and Confederate veteran of the Civil War whom Colonel Bryan Cranston attempts to recruit into fighting the Apache. 

Cranston reveres Kitsch as a soldier, so he’s surprised and more than a little horrified to discover that Kitsch has become a sneering, rage-choked misanthrope who cares only about gold and making his personal fortune. This introduction establishes Kitsch as a man without a country and a loner caught uncomfortably between clashing worlds even before his trip to Mars. Carter emerges as a Hans Solo-like rogue, a shitkicker who remains angry and defiant even behind bars. He’s a wild steed of a man, proudly undomesticated and dangerous to everyone within spitting distance. 

Kitsch declines Cranston’s offer in no uncertain terms and breaks out of jail after he’s locked up for his belligerence. On the run, Kitsch ends up encountering a Thern in a cave and is teleported to Mars. (I’m sorry, I mean Barsoom). On Earth, Kitsch is something of a super-soldier, but the gravity of Barsoom renders him something closer to a superhero who can leap through the air like some sort of demigod and defeat all manner of foes with his incredible strength. There’s a lovely and lyrical sequence of Kitsch trying to acclimate himself to the gravity of Mars that favorably recalls the Hulk’s balletic leaps through the desert in Ang Lee’s Hulk. 

On Barsoom, Kitsch soon finds himself in the middle of a simmering conflict pitting the Martian cities of Zodanga and Helium against each other. As the king of Zodanga, West wants to marry Dejah Thoris, the Princess Of Helium (Lily Collins) as a means of consolidating his power. But Collins is repulsed by West, flees their marriage of convenience, and joins Kitsch and the sympathetic daughter of the king of a race of green-skinned Native American-like Martians named Tharks. Together, they set off on a quest down a sacred river to discover both a means of returning Kitsch home and the source of West’s incredible power. 

I could go on, but writing this plot summary is giving me a pounding headache. Stanton and co-screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon streamlined the books, but it’s still a bit of a mess, plotwise. John Carter is not an elegant piece of storytelling, but it’s filled with moments of astonishing beauty and power, like a bravura sequence that crosscuts images of Kitsch destroying a competing alien army in an explosion of righteous fury with flashbacks of Kitsch burying his dead wife on Earth. It’s a sequence rich with pain and melancholy, a compelling dance between the visceral and the tragic. 

Later, Kitsch proves his valor in another stunning setpiece, this time involving Kitsch taking on a giant white ape in the arena of gladiatorial combat and emerging triumphant. This is one of John Carter’s elements that seem to be borrowed from sword-and-sandals epics of yore. The would-be blockbuster is an amalgam of genres that have fallen out of fashion, like the Western, sword-and-sandals epic, and boy’s-own-adventure tale, as well as the eternally commercial space opera. Perhaps part of the reason John Carter failed at the box office is because its old-fashioned earnestness and unabashed sincerity (Stanton clearly believes in this material, to the film’s benefit and detriment) couldn’t help but feel quaint to contemporary audiences. Then again, Avatar, which James Cameron has acknowledged owes a heavy debt to Burroughs, was awfully sincere, and that did okay at the box office, in the sense that it’s the most successful film of all time. Why did Avatar succeed where Stanton’s live-action debut failed? I imagine it’s because James Cameron and the film’s marketers did a much better job of selling their film and creating a universe that audiences found irresistible. In spite of its debt to Burroughs and Dances With Wolves (for starters), Avatar’s innovative use of 3-D gave it the shock of the new where John Carter was liable to strike audiences as downright old-timey. 

John Carter struck me as neither an unjustly dismissed masterpiece nor a disaster; instead it’s a pretty good, extremely old-fashioned, sincere epic, hobbled by a convoluted plot and wooden dialogue, but redeemed largely through a handful of stunning setpieces and Kitsch’s assured lead performance. It’s better than its reputation suggests, but it’s still fundamentally flawed. 

Friend highlights Stanton’s ability to distill the essence of his films into a single sentence as one of his gifts. These sentences are so purposeful, they are almost Zen koans. For example, Stanton’s mission sentence for John Carter is, “We survive to fulfill our purpose for others.” That weirdly profound line applies to Stanton’s career as well. Stanton will survive, but not to bring John Carter to the big screen as a billion-dollar trilogy, as he originally envisioned. No, it appears that Stanton’s purpose is to continue his life’s work at Pixar, where he’s undoubtedly already inspiring brilliant filmmakers of the future in the same way Burroughs inspired him as a boy. John Carter ends with a heartfelt nod to Stanton’s Pixar roots in a dedication to longtime Pixar owner/visionary Steve Jobs. The failure of John Carter has to sting a man as proud as Stanton, but being able to return to a powerhouse of commerce and creativity like Pixar is one hell of a cosmic consolation prize. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiascocess