John Carter, Disney’s hugely expensive Mars epic and the live-action directing debut from Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, arrives in theaters today burdened with huge expectations. The movie is overstuffed with everything from gothic inheritance tales, to alien corporate raiders, to scientific breakthroughs, to Civil War PTSD. But it says a great deal about John Carter that the movie’s at its best when most of those elements are off-screen, and when our titular hero’s doing an awkward ballet as he learns to walk in Martian gravity, or as he reckons with the dog-like alien who’s decided to adopt him.
While it isn’t a major part of the movie, a clear symptom of John Carter‘s larger problems is the way in handles the trope, of the sympathetic—and innocent—Confederate. Carter was a Confederate in the original source material, and he’s presented here through a common narrative: a man comes home from a war in which he was a disinterested participant to find his home destroyed and his wife and child dead. It’s true that there were non-slave holding whites who fought for the Confederacy (and on the Union side, the response to the law that allowed wealthy men to pay substitutes to fight for them gave rise to the saying “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”). But there’s something unattractive about a narrative that paints men who fought to uphold slavery and white supremacy, even if they were only doing it for the paycheck, as victims without any sort of engagement of the cause for which they fought.
On Mars, Carter’s decision to become a different man largely consists of deciding it’s all right for him to love Martian princess Dejah Thoris. His championing of the Tharks, the aliens who first find him and adopt him into their tribe, who aren’t exactly an analogue for American slaves (the humans on Mars seem to ignore them or form loose alliances with them, rather than oppressing them) is less a matter of political awakening than the most convenient way for him to stop Dejah’s wedding the evil Sab Than, who has been attacking her city. Early in his acquaintance with them, Sola, a female Thark, takes the brand that ought to have been meant for Carter. Even in space, white men get off easy. It would be nice if someone could acknowledge that the biggest moral reckoning for a man who fought for the Confederacy ought to be making amends for the cause he served rather than moving on after he was widowed. John Carter has a lot of serious themes on the table, but it can’t prioritize between them, and ends up doing well by almost none of them.
It’s too bad that there’s so much human (and Thern) sturm und drang in John Carter, because the Tharks are far and away the most charming part of the movie. As Tars Tarkas, Willem Defoe is a combination of world-weary and very funny. “Your spirit annoys me,” he tells Carter, who refuses to give up when the two are sent into an arena to fight some nasty beasties. When Carter leads the Tharks on a bold invasion of Sab Than’s capitol city, only to find out his forces are besieging Dejah’s home city of Helium, Tars Tarkas smacks him upside the head. Watching the Tharks try new things as necessity forces them forward, whether it’s flying, adopting an irritating Earthman into their ranks, or slowly embracing more sentimental parent-child ties.
It’s too bad that the originality of the Tharks is undercut by the fact that many of the action sequences involving them are pillaged directly from the Star Wars movies. When Carter’s first imprisoned prior to the arena fight, the shots of his prison are cribbed from Luke Skywalker’s imprisonment in Jabba’s palace. Carter’s fight against a nasty pair of white apes is set in a sand-colored arena much like the one in Attack of the Clones, and the mechanics of his win suggest he’s seen Skywalker successfully fight a Rancor. And a series of fights on hovercrafts are borrowed, both in their dynamics and the way they’re shot, from the Endor chases in Return of the Jedi.
And it’s also too bad that, despite the fact that Thark society’s one of the only things in the movie that feels specifically Martian and as such, is much more interesting to watch than the rather pointless bickering between two human societies, director Andrew Stanton spends so much time on his insufficiently developed human characters. He does best with Dejah Thoris, who is promising is promising in concept—she’s introduced to us first as a scientist, second as a princess, and third, as a competent fighter—but less so in execution. She’s saddled with ponderous lines like “If you have the means to save others, would you not take every action possible to make it so?” that sound more like the starting point for philosophical debates and less actual conversation. If her romance with Carter is meant to be a ring-of-fire transplanetary love, there just isn’t enough time for Stanton to plausibly develop it. And the movie brings up and then drops the fact that Dejah’s supposed to be on the breakthrough of a major scientific discovery. Battle sequences, apparently, are more fun than lab work, even lab work that opens up the universe.
Similarly, Stanton utterly wastes Dominc West’s sly, sexy charm on Sab Than, making him a retread of the evil rapist he played in 300. The Therns—ostensibly representations of Mars’ goddess protector, but actually rapacious devastators of worlds—are constantly talking about how stupid and violent Sab Than is. The only moment he gets to be a person with motivations or a brain is when he shows up to woo Dejah, explaining “I feared you’d been tortured by Tharks and condemened to die in their arena. I couldn’t have that on my conscience. I do have one, Princess.” But there’s no room in this movie for a genuine romantic competition between John Carter and Sab Than, or for any really serious—in a fun way—thinking about Mars’ future. We’ve got a dog in this fight—the excellent Woola—but this marvelous monster’s more entertaining than the contest he’s a part of.