Rating:Flash Gordon is one of my favorite movies. If you’re going to adapt a comic strip or pulp story or any lurid bit of pop, you should go balls deep into your property and fill it with all the flying hawkmen and Queen guitar solos that the story begs for, and Flash does just that. In fact, producer Dino De Laurentiis understood this better than anyone, and thus Barbarella has a musical organ torture device that gives its captives orgasms and the eponymous thief of Danger: Diabolik has sex on huge piles and money and pulls an “end of Fight Club” in the middle of the goddamn movie. Balls deep, my friends.
I bring up the Mike Hodges classic because Flash Gordon as a property owes a lot to the John Carter series and its author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, so many notable scribes of fantastical fiction were influenced by the Barsoom saga that Burroughs is effectively your favorite sci-fi author’s favorite sci-fi author. And, like Flash Gordon the movie, John Carter dives right into the moist, fertile recesses of the source material to create a rich, dazzling sci-fi world.
The film jumps directly into the shit by opening on Mars, a.k.a. Barsoom, a dying desert world where two factions of red-skinned Martians are locked in war: the un-despicable, scientifically minded denizens of Helium and the violent representatives of the mobile city of Zodanga, who are so evil that their leader is played by Dominic West. Unlucky for the people of Helium, Zodanga gets an unfair advantage by winning over the favor of mysterious, bald, godlike beings called Therns, represented by the other go-to villainous British character actor, Mark Strong, and receiving a curious blue energy power to tip the scales.
Caught between the warring factions is Earth-man John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a tormented soldier who was trying to escape his War Between the States duties before ending up on Mars, where the Martian atmosphere gives him exceptional strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. This impresses the “savage” green Martians and their computer-generated leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). After some questing and a couple action scenes, they fight the bad guys and save the beautiful Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
If that sounds old hat, it is; John Carter is the oldest hat, a sci-fi narrative that George Lucas and James Cameron both pillaged for their respective big-budget alien dollhouses. Plot is rarely the point, anyway; it’s all about how the story is told, and so co-writer/director Andrew Stanton, along with screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon restore the rough edges lost through myriad Star Wars cash-ins and Avatar eco-fascism. What I’m trying to say is that John Carter is a mean-ass movie, one where unhatched green Martian eggs are slaughtered for weakness and our title hero punches a dude to death in a bar fight and the film never bothers to reflect on it. It’s like when kindly old Alec Guinness slices off the arm of that alien with the baboon ass for a mouth, except there aren’t any laser swords.
Still, there’s something missing in the telling. While the Star Warsiness of the film is hard to negotiate at first – at least until you realize why those comparisons are unavoidable – it’s in the narrative where the film is really something. I can tell you John Carter has some instant classic moments – the journey to the mysterious temple, Carter’s one-man battle against an army of green Martians and the fight with the white apes, to name a few – but the script also stumbles in vital places such as trying to work in the godlike Therns as a meta-threat above Zodanga’s primary threat and sufficiently selling the “Princess doesn’t want to marry the villain” conflict beyond the audience’s understanding that forced marriages are bad.
Despite that, it’s amazing how much John Carter satisfies. Stanton is another Pixar guy to branch out into live action, along with Brad Bird of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and we should be thankful for both of them. As the man at the helm of the beloved but ultimately kinda flawed Wall-E, Stanton understands how to make desolate terrains visually appealing and, thanks to a career spent making movies that have become the apex of visual storytelling, knows how to shoot a scene no matter how many computer-generated characters are in it.
But when there are CG characters in John Carter – and believe me, they show up a lot – they’re incredible. You just know Stanton’s Pixar cred is on display in this film, with the amazingly lifelike green Martians and John’s newfound pet alien-dog Woola competing to steal the show. With the former, it’s all about the animators figuring out how to make four-armed aliens more than just a cool image. Meanwhile, the Martian dog could have easily been a return to the Jar Jar Binks school of annoying sidekicks, but the film knows not to make it fart or get into dumb mischief, which results in one of the few truly lovable sidekicks in these kinds of movies. Which isn’t to discount the live-action players. Strong and West deliver exactly the right straight-faced villains British actors are genetically engineered to play. Meanwhile Collins helps create one of the strongest female action characters in years, whose mix of science skills, fighting abilities and human vulnerability are surprising and refreshing for a character that could have been merely eye candy. That leaves the title role. Where there should be a protagonist, all we have is a void shaped like Taylor Kitsch, who seems to have been told to act like he’s in a different movie. While he’s a decent actor, he’s just no fun as John Carter. He plays the character too brooding for the rollicking pulp Stanton seems to be going for.
Ultimately, I wish John Carter was way better than it turned out. As it is, it’s a good, fun, worthwhile movie with brilliant moments in it, but I’m legitimately scared that audiences may ignore it due to some chickenshit marketing decisions on Disney’s part that make John Carter out to be some time-travel fueled sequel to Troy rather than a barbarian sci-fi extravaganza. I want to see Andrew Stanton continue to play in this world, but that won’t happen if nobody sees it.