The most interesting thing about “John Carter” is the way in which it proves how much the film world has been altered in the last ten years by the advancement of CGI and the popularity of films like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”. For decades Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp novel “A Princess of Mars” and it’s sequels have been heralded as unfilmable, yet filmmakers couldn’t help themselves from making the attempt. The first failed effort to film this story goes all the way back to 1931, and Disney’s current production heralds back to 2004, with both Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau trying and failing to get the film off the ground. The lengthy production history is enough to make anyone curious about the adaptation, and what the final product would look like, especially when Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (who did brilliant work on “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”), a director that had only worked on animated features previously, signed on board. Would John Carter be the next great sci-fi epic, or a disaster of epic proportions?
Unfortunately, the result is far less interesting than one would imagine, mostly due to the fact that in the time it took to get an actual adaptation of “John Carter” off the ground, the ideas of the series have been so completely absorbed by the film world. At this point epic space operas are old hat, beginning with “Star Wars” and the glut of ambitious science fiction failures (and occasional successes) that followed in its wake, to more recent (and financially successful) films like “Avatar”, “District 9”, and “Star Trek”. Even the science fiction/western mashup seems trite and unoriginal after last year’s tiresome “Cowboys and Aliens”. Though John Carter is still a pretty terrific looking film, images that would once have been stunning now seem a bit generic, and certain sequences are unfortunately reminiscent of the recent Star Wars prequels (though I’m not sure whether George Lucas copied these images and ideas from Burrough’s series, or whether director Andrew Stanton was inspired by Lucas). This could have been a breathtakingly ambitious epic if it were made in the 70’s or 80’s, but today “John Carter” just looks like yet another in a series of very similar space operas, memorable only for its unusually detailed special effects, unnecessarily complicated storytelling, and a particularly petulant and unlikable hero.
John Carter begins with a series of brief and jarring sequences, which appear to have little to do with each other, and much of which doesn’t pay off until the closing scenes. It first begins with an unwieldy chunk of exposition (delivered by a narrator that never pops up again) reminiscent of the opening of David Lynch’s “Dune”, informing you of places and character names without giving you any indication as to why this information is important, before abruptly launching into a highly unnecessary action sequence. The real point of this scene is extremely minor, simply showing how the film’s villain comes into possession of his power, and the lack of context makes it extremely confusing. It is almost impossible to tell from this sequence what role Dominic West’s Sab Than, the central character of this sequence, is going to play in the remainder of the film: I expected him to be a mysterious character who would become the lynchpin of the plot, and was extremely surprised when he is nothing but a snarling, generic villain for the rest of the film. The scene is highly unnecessary, as everything that happens in it is explained later in the film in a much more organic way later on. It is an early indication of one of the film’s greatest failings: its tendency to deliver massive chunks of exposition that could easily be shown to the audience in a more natural manner.
Then the audience is introduced to the actual main character, John Carter, on 19th century Earth for a brief sequence, only to immediately be informed that he is dead and introduced to his nephew (apparently meant to be Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, and played ineptly by former spy kid Daryl Sabara), who is given his journal and starts reading of his fantastic adventures on Mars. In the space of about ten minutes we are dropped into four separate time periods and places, with whiplash inducing results.
We discover that John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of TV’s Friday Night Lights) was a great Confederate soldier from Virginia in the Civil War, who suddenly decided to defect and blaze his own trail as an outlaw searching for gold (for predictable reasons that are revealed later). When General Bryan Cranston (who plays the role as Walter White in a ridiculous blonde wig) catches up with him in the Arizona desert and attempts to forcibly recruit him, only to be ambushed by Indians, John ends up accidentally finding the “cave of gold” that he was searching for. He doesn’t have much time to enjoy his discovery however, as he is quickly attacked by one of the creepy bald guys who appeared in the first scene. Carter quickly dispatches him, but discovers a medallion the man was carrying which teleports him to Mars. The best and most imaginative sequence of the film takes place immediately afterwards, when John finds himself back in the desert, and can’t figure out why he can’t walk like he did before (presumably due to the different gravity on Mars). The film’s best concept is that since John isn’t built for this planet, he can jump higher, hit harder, and throw further than any of the natives. This sequence introduces the concept in a fun, comedic (and nearly wordless) sequence that is reminiscent of director Andrew Stanton’s best work in his previous film, “Wall-E”. However this sense of fun and discovery doesn’t last long, as we are quickly dragged into a muddled, yet utterly generic plot about a battle between two warring factions on Mars (called Barsoom by the natives) and the green skinned, six limbed race called Tharks that refuse to become involved. It also involves a Martian princess, Deja, played by Lynn Collins, who is being offered as a bride to the evil Sab Than as a peace offering by his father, and the race of Creepy Bald Men, who apparently gave the brutish Sab Than a weapon called “The 9th Ray” so he could take over Barsoom and allow them to destroy it, using him as their puppet.
The screenplay for the film is a complete mess, hopping from place to place on Barsoom without much rhyme and reason, and the film’s sense of momentum is constantly bogged down by characters stopping to deliver long monologues containing “important information” that rarely helps to progress the simplistic storyline. It is a wonder that Carter’s nephew chooses to believe his tale in the end, since it has all the flaws of a bad lie: a simple story filled with unnecessary details. The plotting is incredibly formulaic, as John is continuously sent on quest after quest, paired up with different variations of characters, ends up getting involved in battles, and is then sent on a new quest. The film is essentially comprised of a series of abrupt starts and stops: John will seem to sit around forever having dull conversations, until he suddenly runs into the next character required to advance the plot or becomes involved in a massive battle out of nowhere. The dialogue is disappointingly witless, considering Stanton also helped write Finding Nemo, one of the funniest films of the 2000s, and Michael Chabon, a great storyteller in the world of literature also did work on the script.
Perhaps the greatest flaw is that the central characters are so uninteresting: John never comes off as more than a smug, selfish prick and his supposed “redemption” by the end of the film is utterly unconvincing (especially since it’s impossible to think of a moment where he acts out of anything other than self-interest). Lynn Collins looks beautiful but between her terrible British accent and poorly written dialogue it’s impossible to discern any personality. Dominic West’s performance is incredibly over the top, yet another in a series of weak film roles for the actor. By far the most interesting characters are the Tharks, played mainly by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church, but their appearances are disappointingly minor, and the characters are only really important at the beginning and end of the film.
It should be mentioned, however, that the film does have some excellent action sequences, which never get bogged down in blurry special effects like the Transformers films, and manage to be varied and imaginative enough that they haven’t gotten tiresome by the film’s climax. John’s ability to jump increasingly far distances leads to some exciting and unusual sequences, as do small air ships that lead to some truly breathtaking and three dimensional sequences. Too many blockbuster films get pretty much everything other than the action sequences right (“The Dark Knight” is a perfect example of that), so it’s disappointing that these sequences are surrounded by a film that is otherwise dull and lifeless. The animation is also quite stunning, blowing the Star Wars prequels and even Avatar out of the water in terms of how detailed the CGI characters are. Despite looking so alien, the Tharks’ movements and expressions seem utterly natural, and they rarely look fake or cartoony.
“John Carter” ends up being a mediocre but curious beast: a film that is clearly a passion project from a filmmaker that has always dreamed of bringing a beloved series from childhood to life, but ends up feeling utterly generic and devoid of personality. Though I have never read Burrough’s books, I get the impression that Stanton stayed true to many of the details of the book series, but has left out the passion and personality in order to make the film a slickly marketable product that Disney can safely release. Yet the film still feels too idiosyncratic and full of ridiculous names and concepts to really catch on with a mass audience. It’s a movie that’s stuck in the middle: it can’t decide whether it wants take ambitious risks or dumb down the story to resemble every other fantasy action film, so it ends up in a middle ground that is neither interesting nor effective as mindless entertainment.