‘John Carter’ Review
‘John Carter’. Just ‘John Carter’.
Disney changed the title of this notoriously extravagant blockbuster from ‘John Carter of Mars’ during production, either because a) ‘Mars Needs Moms’, a recent Disney production, was a huge flop, b) market research indicated women wouldn’t go see a movie about Mars, or c) both. Whatever the reason, it turned out to be an ironic choice: regardless of the title, it’s Mars, not John Carter, who’s the star of this film. Even during the most narratively bereft moments, there is always something interesting to look at onscreen.
That’s good because the narratively bereft moments come early and often.
In a series of prologues sure to confuse neophytes to fantasy novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian mythos, we’re introduced to Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), retired Confederate soldier, as he wanders around New York City in the 1880s. After he sends a telegram and promptly dies off-screen, the focus shifts to his nephew, a young man named, ahem, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara). He’s given Carter’s estate, along with a manuscript detailing his adventures on Barsoom — that’s Mars to the various races who live there, which include the beastly Green Martians, ferocious, 9-foot-tall creatures with four arms and tusks, and the intellectual Red Martians, who look basically human only they’ve got a lot more henna tattoos.
The plot smooths out with Carter’s arrival on Mars, but only to an extent. There Carter become a prisoner of the Green Martians, led by the unusually merciful Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, performance captured and animated as a big alien), and falls for the Red Martian Princess Dejah Thoris (a beautiful and feisty Lynn Collins), who is on the run, opening-of-the-original-’Star Wars‘-style, from an evil Red Martian named Sab Than (Dominic West). Sab wants to marry Dejah because some weird looking dude in flowing gray robes (Mark Strong) promised him unlimited power if he did it. Carter and his faithful dog-like alien sidekick Woola have to save Dejah before she marries the wrong Prince, ending-of-’Spaceballs’-style.
In adapting Burroughs’ novel ‘A Princess of Mars’ to the screen, writer/director Andrew Stanton – the wizard behind Pixar masterpieces like ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘WALL-E’ making his live-action directorial debut – chose to keep all of the weird Martian words and culture that populate the dialogue. Even with occasional pauses for exposition, there are still sentences that sound almost entirely like gibberish (“Tharks did not cause this! But by Issus, Tharks will end it!”) If you don’t know Burroughs, you might be in for some confusion.
Stanton’s confusion – or maybe studio executives’ confusion when they made changes in post-production, who knows – resonates in the film’s tone. Some Burroughs scholars say his Martian novels inspired almost every science-fiction story that followed and, at times, it feels like Stanton’s trying to make all of them into one film. He tries to vary broad comic scenes about Carter’s confusion on Mars with dramatic sequences about goddesses and ninth rays and Tharks and Therns and planetary civil wars — all of which could use a bit more lightness and a lot less stiffness.
The same could be said of Kitsch, who dials down the laconic charm that made him so likable on television’s ‘Friday Night Lights’ in order to affect a macho posture and guttural, tough guy growl. None of the qualities that made Kitsch so likable as ‘FNL”s Tim Riggins are present in his performance here, which is really a shame. As Riggins, everything he did looked effortless; as Carter, he looks like he’s trying really hard, a trait that’s not terribly becoming on an action hero.
What does look good, though, are the sights and people of Barsoom, most created in computers, all possessing an otherworldly beauty. No one’s saying how much ‘John Carter’ cost to make (most estimates put it in the $250 million range), but whatever it cost, the imagery is astonishing. Huge rock palaces, mining tanks the size of cities, photo-real aliens – ‘John Carter’ is as sweet a piece of eye candy as you’re likely to see this year. The 3D isn’t distracting, but it adds a lot more to the ticket price than it does to the visuals.
‘John Carter’ isn’t the disaster some industry observers predicted, but it’s not the high-gloss masterpiece some of us hoped for either. Though it always looks stunning, the story is only intermittently engaging. Burroughs’ work is an archetypal story about a stranger in a strange land. Looking at ‘John Carter’, one can’t help but wonder whether Stanton, an animation master trying his hand at live-action, could relate to his hero’s journey all too well.