The buzz around John Carter has been planetary in proportions. There have been media reports of an inflated $300 million budget (the numbers are actually more like $250 million), astronomically high expectations for director Andrew Stanton (the star Pixar helmer of Finding Nemo and Wall-E), and a questionable marketing campaign that included dropping the “of Mars” from the original movie title. It seems John Carter has been precariously teetering between success and failure for months now – depending on who you ask. My personal expectations for the film hinged on its preternaturally handsome star – Taylor Kitsch – a perfect specimen of hair, abs and brooding sensibility. That big screen fame might be on the horizon for Friday Night Lights’ very own Tim Riggins was enough to make me giddy with excitement.
But alas (and you may have seen this coming), the large budget, the imaginative director and the hunky star could not make this 3D extraterrestrial epic extraordinary. A lot of that has to do with the fact that John Carter plays out like a retread of sci-fi films past. My immediate reaction? It’s Prince of Persia meets Avatar – with a few Star Wars scenes thrown in. Plain and simple, I felt like I had seen the movie before. To be fair, John Carter’s source material far predates these films. The original book series, the first installment entitled A Princess of Mars, was written by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burrows 100 years ago! And I’m sure it was a lot more original back then. We’ve seen too much since then to be thoroughly impressed with its story of an embattled planet and its unlikely hero.
What sets John Carter slightly apart from these other films is that for today’s audiences, it’s a unique combination of past and future. Carter is a native Virginian and ex-Confederate soldier in the mid-1800s who by some strange twist of fate finds himself teleported onto Mars, a planet filled with futuristic gadgets and alien creatures. The dichotomy of these two worlds is an interesting aspect to the film. The natives – which include tall, green creatures with multiple limbs, and inhabitants that look like humans who overdid it on the spray-tans and henna tattoos – call their planet Barsoom. Carter quickly learns a few things about Barsoom: 1. He’s able to jump unnaturally high and 2. All is not peaceful on the red planet.
The nations of Barsoom are at war – egged on by the mysterious Therns, shape-shifting creatures that thrive off destruction. John Carter, a warrior by nature, gets dragged into the conflict after he saves Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the beautiful princess of the nation of Helium. He teams up with Dejah and the citizens of Helium (presumably the “good guys”) in order to save Barsoom from doom. It’s amazing I was able to retain that much of the plot, what with its numerous characters, bizarre logic and hard-to-pronounce alien names and titles. Examples: Tars Tarkas, Matai Shang, Sab Than, Jeddak, Thark. I know one of them is played by Mark Strong and one of the aliens was voiced by Willem Defoe – just don’t quiz me on which ones. If I didn’t have (a mostly shirtless) Taylor Kitsch to gaze at I may have drifted off completely.
But just because the movie is convoluted doesn’t mean Kitsch doesn’t carry it as best as he can. He proves he can be leading man material, if given the right project. (Sadly, I don’t know if Battleship is the right project either. I’m picturing a gritty Western…) He and the stunning Collins make a good pair and their romance in the film is quite reminiscent of those classic Disney fairytales.
Perhaps if this were a more original tale, Stanton’s directorial skills would have been put to better use. I like his style and the messages he always manages to bring forth in his animated works. Think of how he conveyed so much in the first half of Wall-E with no dialogue at all. I guess I was just hoping for more with John Carter – some of that Pixar magic, if you will.
The movie never really gets off the ground, no matter how high the gravity-defying Carter jumps. But here’s where John Carter might succeed – with kids. To them, this may seem like brand new territory. They may stare in wonder at this world Stanton created and react with genuine to surprise to the action-packed plot. Plus the effects are eye catching enough, especially for young kids that even when they experience this film later on the small screen on their home cinema systems they’re likely to remain engaged. Too bad we all can’t share that cosmic wonder. The planets just didn’t align on this one.
Civil War vet John Carter is transplanted to Mars, where he discovers a lush, wildly diverse planet whose main inhabitants are 12-foot tall green barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, who is in desperate need of a savior.