Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe
MPAA: PG-13 – For Intense Sequences of Violence and Action]
To give you a super brief, one-sentence summary on my thoughts on John Carter: I almost didn’t want to review this film, but I did anyway because the film’s backstory is more interesting than the actual movie itself. The movie itself is a serviceable and fun, but bland and generic sci-fi/fantasy yarn. The story in which it’s based on, however, is…well…
Here, the “Barsoom” series of pulpy sci-fi novels are about the exploits of a civil war veteran turned gold prospector named John Carter who is magically transported to Mars and becomes a hero thanks to gaining super-human strength from having his earth muscles working in Mars’s atmosphere. The novels were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also created Tarzan, and they are some of the earliest and most influential examples of science fiction writing ever created. Wanna know when the first story of John Carter of Mars was published? 1912. Yes, 100 years ago. A freaking century ago.
To say that Burroughs’s work is the most influential piece of science fiction is a massive understatement. Without John Carter there would be no Lord of the Rings, no Avatar, no Harry Potter, no Superman, and…yes, no Star Wars. That’s how much the hand of John Carter can reach. 100 years and we are still ripping off of the things that ripped off of the things that ripped off of Burroughs’s original work. Damn. Just…damn.
So, considering how insanely influential and utterly freaking important this series is to modern fiction, why is it that we’ve only gotten a movie just now? Well, of course they couldn’t make a movie back in the ’10s through the ’60s because there was no CG to support the 9-foot tall green men with tusks and four arms. Many have tried making a film about John Carter throughout the ’70s and onward, but the projects fell through due to overblown budgets, script troubles, and other such things.
Finally, along came Andrew Stanton, hot off the success of working with Pixar as the director of two of their films (Finding Nemo and WALL-E to be exact, two of my favorite Pixar films ever) and decided to use his leverage to allow Disney to fund his dream project: Giving John Carter of Mars the cinematic adventure he deserves.
The rest is a painful examination of the idiocy of marketing executives. Originally titled John Carter of Mars, Disney chopped off the latter portion of the name in favor of the shorter and blander title of John Carter. This was because Disney previously distributed the animated mo-cap film Mars Needs Moms, which became one of their biggest flops, and they suddenly decided that using “Mars” in the title was some sort of cursed word that will turn away audiences. Right, because people would’ve seen Mars Needs Moms even if Mars wasn’t in the title, right? Disney then furthered to make the film look as utterly generic and bordering as possible in the marketing by highlighting the most groan-inducing cliche’d lines (“Our world is dying…”), refusing to acknowledge the fact that John Carter is on freaking Mars, and refusing to acknowledge in the marketing that it is based on, oh, the most influential science fiction story known to man. You could’ve at least thrown in a “Based on the MOST INFLUENTIAL SCIENCE FICTION STORY KNOWN TO MAN” on the posters! For Chrissakes….
Well, now the movie is finally out, and after 100 years, John Carter finally gets to be seen on the big screen, but is it the cinematic adventure he rightfully deserves?
Okay, here’s why it’s hard to review John Carter. I can go on and on about how generic the whole thing is, but it will be for naught because the defense will be raised with people saying “Well, of course it’s generic! It’s the foundation of every other famous science fiction/fantasy story to come after it.” Which makes sense on a lot of levels, but I’ve never bought the whole “because they did it first” argument. Even if John Carter was the first to do it, doesn’t mean that a modern cinematic version of his story shouldn’t have any life or uniqueness to it.
The plot is a very loose retelling of the first novel of the “Barsoom” series, A Princess of Mars, in which Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights) is magically transported to Mars and learns that, because his Earth muscles act differently in Mars’s atmosphere, he has superhuman strength and can jump really far distances. This becomes useful when he learns that the planet is in danger, and he must save its princess (Lynn Collins) so that it isn’t overtaken by sinister forces. And to do so, he must go through a series of events that manage to be equal parts bland and predictable, but also needlessly complicated and incomprehensible.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie at all. Like I said before, it’s inoffensive, serviceable, light fun. But I really do think it could’ve been better, even if it the source material has become generic as time raged on because it’s become such a template for these kinds of stories. My main problem is that not enough life and energy has been injected into it. As generic as John Carter is, the material is still strange enough to lead into some pulpy fun. If the film had embraced how ridiculous it is, and took full advantage of every idea and genre in its disposal (It’s equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, and even a bit of Western), John Carter could’ve been something more. But considering how mainstream movie-going audiences are totally against the weird and whimsical (They did reject Scott Pilgrim after all), the entire thing is played out as straight-faced as humanly possible, which isn’t the right fit.
But even worse is the pacing. When it isn’t just action on top of action drizzled with more actiony action-action, it is going through the motions with boring dialogue, transparent characters, and formulaic plot lines. And when it isn’t doing that, the viewer is bombarded with needlessly complicated exposition that is meant to give the sense of a rich mythology (and I’m sure it’s a rich mythology) but just makes things even more incomprehensible.
Hell, the final 10 minutes is an almost completely unnecessary diversion that complicates things just for the sole purpose of acknowledging the movie’s principal framing device (The movie uses Burroughs as a character, who learns of John’s adventures are decides to write a book about them, natch) that had no reason being there in the first place other than to provide fan-service. We don’t need an explanation for how Carter got to Mars, we don’t need to know the political situation going on with the red-skins, if I want to know that stuff and I’m interested enough to want to know it, then I’ll read the books that are able to explain all of that rich mythology without having it feel like it breaks up the action. There are some thrilling moments in John Carter, but there are also moments that bored me to tears.
But speaking of the thrilling moments, there are some really good action sequences in this movie. Not enough to justify the rest of the movie, but they are remarkably well-directed. My favorite one was a scene where John just goes ballistic on an entire army of Tharks–the green, 9-foot tall, 4-armed aliens–and basically becomes a one-man army. But there were even some non-action moments that I liked, such as the scene where John is getting used to Mars’s atmosphere, which looks almost like a scene of ballet when accompanied with the appropriate music (and indeed, it is accompanied with appropriate music in this film).
Part of what makes these scenes work is, believe it or not, Michael Giacchino’s score. Giacchino is one of the best composers working in film today, having done music for most of Pixar’s works (Including the tear-inducing waltz from the opening of Up) as well as music for a lot of JJ Abrams’s projects (The Williams-inspired score of Super 8 and the emotional music for LOST). He works wonders again in this film, creating an epic score that helps elevate the material somewhat.
But it’s all held back of course by many of the things that I mentioned earlier, as well as some poor casting. Okay, there is really only one miscast in the whole bunch, but it’s the most important one of all: John Freaking Carter. Taylor Kitsch is fine enough as an action hero, but fails to give John Carter any semblance of a personality and is especially unconvincing in the Earth-set scenes that take place in the late 1800s. Lynn Collins fares better, and it’s nice to have a Princess character who can actually fend for herself, but is still equally transparent. And then everyone else, including the voice of Willem Dafoe as one of the Tharks, is practically non-existent.
All in all, even though I wasn’t really expecting too much out of this, even with the legacy of John Carter behind it, I wanted it to be better. I love Andrew Stanton’s work at Pixar, I wanted to support his “dream project”, and there was potential here for a genuinely good film, but it didn’t come together properly.
Final Verdict: John Carter looks nice, and it gets the job done when it comes to thrilling action. Unfortunately, none of that can save the generic storytelling, messy exposition, poor pacing, and wooden acting.
That is all. If you liked this review, you can follow me on the Twitter-machine @Enigma6667 so you won’t ever miss a single review from me and read some of my general ramblings on movies, games, and other such things.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to jump very high to save the princess. Damn you, King Koopa!