Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Sitting in movie theaters week after week, even a film lover like me can get a little jaded.
And after seeing the previews over and over for “John Carter,” a science fiction Disney film with a horribly bland name and a haphazard marketing campaign, I had very low expectations for what I thought would be nothing more than a cartoonish version of “Cowboys & Aliens” (which isn’t a very high benchmark to begin with).
Boy, was I surprised.
While the lead actor of “John Carter” turns in a performance almost as lifeless as the film’s name, the story around him was surprisingly engaging, the action entertaining and the conclusion very satisfying. Willem Defoe’s performance (as a 12-foot green alien) quietly steals the show, helping to make the computer generated aliens actually likeable – no small feat after the disaster known as Jar Jar Binks.
I learned later that the film was written and directed by Andrew Stanton, the Oscar-winning writer of Pixar’s “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” among other hits. And Stanton’s “John Carter,” while not in the same league as those films, nonetheless has the same sort of feel-good vibe, sense of adventure and moral clarity that audiences have come to expect from Pixar flicks.
In fact, a friend of mine said watching “John Carter” made him “feel like a 10-year-old boy again,” and I agree with him. It’s a fun, boyish adventure (in both the Wild West and outer space), where the hero is redeemed and the good guys win.
The film follows a former Confederate soldier, John Carter, who lost his family, his nation and, indeed, his moral compass in the War Between the States. While on the run through America’s West, Carter accidentally encounters an alien who transports him to Mars, where the local populations are in the midst of their own war.
But on Mars, with its lesser gravity, Carter’s bone and muscle density make him a dominating athlete and warrior. The peoples of the planet each try to recruit him to their side, while the disillusioned Carter claims he only wants to return home.
In the film’s pivotal moment, Carter refuses to join even the planet’s “good guys,” led by a noble and beautiful princess.
“War is a shameful thing,” he says.
But rather than offer the typical Hollywood, leftist answer, the princess replies, “Not when a noble cause is taken up by them who can make a difference.”
The rest of the film is a challenge to Carter’s complacency and empty pacifism.
“If you had the means to save others, would you not?” he’s asked.
“I would lay down my life to save [my people],” he’s told, a convicting example.
“What do you care?” he’s asked by the film’s villain. “You don’t have a dog in this fight.”
Despite all his protests, reasons and justifications, John Carter eventually realizes that there is neither honor nor victory in standing idly by while evil triumphs. And if a battle is necessary to protect the righteous, then there is just cause, even for the horrors of war.
“John Carter” contains only a handful of minor profanities and obscenities.
The film contains little sexual content, though the female warriors and the princess, specifically, wear outfits revealing plenty of leg, midriff and cleavage throughout the film, while Carter goes shirtless through much of the film. There are a couple of kisses and a pair of mild innuendos.
There is a significant amount of violence, as the film takes place in the middle of a war, with shootings, swordplay, decapitations and mass battles. It is occasionally gory (though the aliens bleed blue goo) and does stylize the art of war, though it doesn’t focus on the blood and guts or attempt to “gross out” the audience. There is also a scene of a man’s urine stream and a scene where an alien is disciplined through torturous branding with a hot iron.
The film is loaded with religious content, though it is the fictitious religion of the alien world, where all creatures worship the “goddess” Isus. Consequently, there are remarks like, “pray to the goddess,” “thank the goddess” and so forth. There is also a temple scene that describes through carvings the belief of the planet. It’s fairly benign, though it does occasionally parallel earthly religions, such as discussion that the dead go to paradise in the “bosom of Isus.” There is one mention of God on earth. There is also a moment – which might or might not be interpreted as reflective of materialistic atheism – in which the princess comes to realize the power of the angelic/demonic beings is not spiritual, but an advanced form of machinery.