If you’ve spent any amount of time as a professional film critic, you get used to a few common rejoinders. We all know exactly what unhappy readers think about our thwarted real career goals, and the various contracts we’ve clearly signed in blood with residents of the underworld that robbed us of our capacity for joy. But among the most persistent are variations on uses of the word “fun.” To wit: “Hey, lighten up, it’s not supposed to be Shakespeare; it’s just meant to be fun.”
The unspoken assumptions accompanying the use of that word are many—that “fun” is an objective measurement; that the intent to create “fun” is a holy shield, a sort of artistic “get out of criticism free” card; that “fun” trumps all other considerations. The “fun mafia” is wrong about many things, but at the core is one easy-to-understand truth: A movie that puts a goofy smile on our face makes it easy to forgive a multitude of sins. As many little things as John Carter does that could tip the scales over to silly, it somehow manages to stay just on the right side of fun.
Adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars, director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and his co-screenwriters (including novelist Michael Chabon) introduce us to Capt. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins and X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s Gambit), a Confederate Civil War veteran whose death in 1881 brings his nephew Ned (erstwhile Spy Kid Daryl Sabara) to New York for a reading of his will. In Carter’s journals, Ned learns the story of how a search for treasure in the Arizona Territory led Carter to a mysterious cave, and an amulet that transported him to a planet the locals call “Barsoom”—or what we know as Mars. There, he finds a planet in the midst of centuries-long war—though it may be near the end, as the shadowy Matai Shang (Mark Strong) has given a powerful weapon to his puppet, the warlord Sab Than (Dominic West).
There’s more to the Martian political machinations—including Sab Than’s demand of one holdout city that the beautiful princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) be turned over as his wife—but it’s hard to care about any of it. John Carter often feels desperately over-plotted, from Carter’s own unspoken history of tragedy and heartbreak, to the confounding manipulations of Matai Shang and his fellow Therns, to the connection between the chief of the green Thark race (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and a perpetually punished young female (Samantha Morton). And it’s a lot for young leads Kitsch and Collins to carry, as fetching as they may look in their various revealing costumes.
Yet every time it starts to feel that John Carter is buckling under the strain of limited actors or distracting exposition, it finds somewhere to go that’s … well, fun. A terrific early sequence finds Carter captured by a group of U.S. soldiers, with a simple monologue by their leader (Bryan Cranston) repeatedly interrupted by Carter’s escape attempts. Once on Mars, Carter finds himself pinwheeling madly through his attempts at walking as he tries to adjust to the effect of lower gravity on his human body, turning him into a de facto superhero. Carter finds an improbable—and extremely loyal—ally in the lightning-fast, six-legged, endearingly dog-like Woola. And a climactic arena battle between Carter and a gigantic “white ape” reaches a wonderfully over-the-top conclusion.
That arena battle also bears more than a faint resemblance to the one in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, and other bits and pieces throughout the adventuring—airborne battles weaving through the legs of giant walking machines, epic alien battles, even the unnecessarily convoluted politics—feel similarly familiar. It’s easy to see some viewers offering a “been there, seen that” shrug, or finding Kitsch too lightweight a hero. Perhaps there’s nothing much new under the sun—or the two moons of Barsoom—especially when Burroughs’ world-spanning pulp tales influenced a generation of later science fiction.
The trick, then, is the energy and charm a filmmaker brings to a story. While the conclusion sets up the prospect of sequels, I’m not sure I need to see another John Carter movie—but I had a surprisingly good time with this one. And it all comes down to—hey, don’t make me keep dropping the f-word.
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong