Directed By: Andrew Stanton
Written By: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston
John Carter is an ambitious film full of a lost innocence that is rarely seen today. It is a story absent of dread or dissonance which celebrates its ability to continuously remain in a lively disposition. The level of camp is high and it never shies away from that fact. While I had a great appreciation for its lack of shame overall it was a grand spectacle missing any deep substance. Your eyes will have plenty to focus on, but attempting to get engaged in the actual story being told will present more of a challenge. It is not that the plot itself is short on complexity rather when you analyze the complexity to its core you a left with a story absent in key areas. John Carter will provide some tremendous moments of entertainment that are overall feel hallow.
Considering the fact this film is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic novel and is being directed by Pixar alum Andrew Stanton I assumed the story would provide something of depth to grasp onto. Stanton is the director who gave us such great films like Wall-E and Finding Nemo so my assumption was not without its evidence. The plot has a lot going on, and in fact it clearly has too much going on at times. In the film John Carter is a Confederate Civil War veteran who is currently just attempting to survive a life without war. He is a man of no allegiances about to be forced into one. During a chance encounter John Carter is forced across our solar system to the planet of Mars or as the inhabitants of the planet call it Barsoom. Taylor Kitsch plays the title character in what is easily his biggest role to date. At this point Kitsch is best known for his work in Friday Night Lights and Wolverine: X-Men Origins so I was curious to see how he would handle such a large role. Placing a huge franchise tent pole film in the hands of a relative no name actor is a daring move for both the studio and the actor. This could help make Kitsch into a megastar or end his career before it begins. The end result lays some place in the middle. Overall Kitsch performance is a microcosm for the film as a whole. His effort is noteworthy, but it lacks any type of personality. Kitsch lacked the charismatic charm needed to make up for what was a rather ill-conceived character. The film tried to have this overlying blanket of mystery continuously following the character, but often that mystery did a disservice as Carter’s motivations as they stayed in a constant state of cloudiness. Even when his past was revealed I never felt his character had any sense of development. It seemed he was simply defined by his reaction to whatever physical challenge laid before him next. Considering the plot of the film there were a lot of those challenges to face.
Barsoom is a place a great conflict in a constant state of battle. The world is nearing absolute collapse, but there is some hope as the Princess of the city of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is being forced to marry Sab Than (Dominic West) leader of the rival city of Zodanga. Dejah does not wish to marry Sab Than, and her gut feeling is right as Sab Than is really being controlled by Matai Shang (Marc Strong) the leader of the mysterious race of the Therns. The Therns , thought a myth by most that live in Barsoom, have secretly being controlling the world in hopes to bring it to its final destruction. However one thing they didn’t plan on was the arrival of John Carter. Like how Superman gained powers when he fell to earth so has John Carter gained special abilities on Mars. The adjustment in gravity has given him near superhuman strength and the ability to leap incredible distances. It is that gift that allows John Carter to save Dejah as she was attempting to flee from Sab Than. Dejah is immediately impressed with the abilities of John Carter and wishes him to join her to take down the evils of Sab Than and his army. Carter wants no part in it however, and only wishes to find a way back home. However Carter’s initial resistance begins to fade as his feelings towards Sab Than grow. He may not only save this world but also finally find the peace he was longing for.
One of the biggest issues I had with the film was that relationship between John Carter and Dejah Thoris. It wasn’t due to the actors’ individual performances; because I felt Lynn Collins portrayal of Dejah was one of the best performances in the movie. The issue was that relationship never felt developed or even existent at times. I don’t expect a sweeping love story in a science fiction fantasy epic such as this, however when you make it such a crucial part of the your main character’s development as well as a focal point in the film I expected there to be more substance. It lacked any real reasoning and felt very rushed. Editing in general felt ragged as if major scenes were cut out. That in part was largely due to a classic case of too much story. You have a huge amount of things going on plus what seemed like countless quantity of subplots. Although it gave you a better understanding to the world as a whole it causes it to lose any type of intimate nature. Characters become defined simply based on the roles they are supposed to play rather than their actual actions or emotions. This issue also really bogged down the second act a great deal. The second act appeared aimless with no desire to move the story forward. A lot of the major events were pieced together with loose connective tissue. All the different elements of this world felt completely foreign to one another. You had different species and races that were meant to be at war with one another, but felt ignorant to each other existence until the final climax. In moments it was as if there were multiple movies going on at the same time. When all these different fragmented storylines came together the forced nature of it caused any emotion they were attempting to evoke to fall flat.
Even with those issues John Carter does have a lot of things going for it. One thing I did welcome was the wiliness to embrace the fantasy side of science fiction. Everything from the costumes to the set design to even the name of the characters brings you in to this completely unique world. There was no large attempt to water the material down to make it more realistic or easier to digest for the general audience. At times it had the tone of an updated version of Flash Gordon or other ridiculously fun science fiction adventures. Overall the look and the special effects were also handled well. This story is one of the most influential in all of science fiction and that was evident at many times throughout, but it was still able to remain refreshingly unique. The action sequences were also highly enjoyable as they added a mixture of epic battles, thrilling adventure, and topped it off with some good old science fiction mystery. John Carter’s ability to “jump really high” may not seem all that fantastic on paper, and even in the trailers, when it was utilized in the movie it was actually quite effective. The physics and look did look questionable but that flaw was easy to forgive. It allowed them to add a new element to moments we have seen before. Perhaps the best example of this was when we see John Carter literally take on an entire army by himself as he masterfully uses all of his abilities. That moment wouldn’t have happened in a film that was less daring to accept the weird spectacle the story creates. There was a constant reverencing in its own ridiculousness which was impossible not to respect. It didn’t mold itself to mend to the expectations of today’s audiences in a hope to seek a larger acceptance. I just wish it provided better evidence to show how escaping into a new worldly atmosphere can be overwhelmingly engaging. Instead it showed that such a unique experience can cause the overall story to get bogged down with expansive epilogue and explanation.
John Carter in a lot of ways feels like Disney’s attempt to make a science fiction version of Pirates of the Caribbean. At times it gets rather close to accomplishing that goal, but it never has a strong enough make-up to gain a large scale appeal. It has the sights and sounds, but it is never able to establish the characters you need to latch onto. John Carter isn’t lacking in potential. With a great deal of the world already established it could allow the ‘potential’ sequels to build upon what is there to make a complete film. In the end though the film is just that, a starter kit in how to make a movie franchise.