John Carter has had a long, long road to the big screen: originally published by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs (as Under the Moons of Mars, and later, Princess of Mars) in a series of pulp magazines in 1912 (under a pseudonym, for fear of ridicule), work on the film first began in the early 1930s, when it was conceived as an animated feature under Looney Tunes director Robert Clampett; more recently, the material passed through the hands of directors John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran, and Jon Favreau.
Now, 100 years after the original Burroughs stories were published, Disney and director Andrew Stanton (make his live-action debut following WALL•E and Finding Nemo) have finally brought John Carter to cinemas. Considering the troublesome production history, they’ve done a solid job: this is good fun of the old-fashioned serial adventure variety.
Stanton shows a similar flair for live-action that Brad Bird, another Pixar animator recently branching out, displayed in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: the action scenes here are well-shot and executed, and – bucking recent trends in action films – carefully edited so that the viewer is never disoriented.
The exposition-heavy script, on the other hand (by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon), sometimes lets the director down. After opening with a barely-intelligible overview of life on Mars (shades of the heavy-handed Green Lantern intro), John Carter moves on to an extraneous-feeling (if ultimately justified) framing device following a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading the journal of Carter, his recently deceased uncle.
Once the movie gets into the actual story, however, it never looks back. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a disgruntled Civil War veteran who inexplicably finds himself transported to Mars. Here, he’s captured by the Tharks, a race of tusked, green-skinned, four-armed CGI aliens, while the more human-looking residents of Zodanga and Helium battle for control of the planet on giant floating ships (that, unfortunately, recall last year’s The Three Musketeers).
Carter just wants to go home, but he’s caught up in the warfare, which involves the benevolent Helium leader Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), his daughter Dejah (Lynn Collins), the dastardly Sab Than (Dominic West), who insists on Dejah’s hand in marriage or the destruction of Helium, and the god-like Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who has given Than incredible powers in exchange for obedience.
How can Carter help? His bone density enables him to leap great distances and gives him a super strength. He’s attracted to Dejah, who looks human enough, though the density differences would presumably create some romantic…difficulties.
Kitsch, who’s mostly known for his role on TV’s Friday Night Lights, isn’t exactly bad in the lead, but he feels miscast, lacking the charisma to command the screen and really make the character work (Tom Cruise, who was attached to star in a 1980s version of the film, might have made an ideal John Carter). His excessively laid-back acting style reminds one most of Twilight’s Tyler Lautner.
The supporting cast, however, picks up the slack: especially impressive is Collins, who’s the kind of fierce and fierce-minded heroine that’s usually missing from films like this. She’s not the usual damsel in distress, but she’s also ravishing in some skimpy Martianwear that harkens back to Princess Leia’s getup in Jabba’s Palace. Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton provide voices to the Tharkan leader and a benevolent Thark, the two most sympathetic characters in the movie; Bryan Cranston is fun in what amounts to a short Earthbound cameo.
John Carter is exciting and well-paced enough to make the 137-minute runtime palatable, but it also left a number of nagging questions that detracted from total enjoyment of the movie. What was the Thern’s motivation? What, exactly, are their powers? (Both of these are put directly to Strong’s character, who answers them incredibly insufficiently). What is the limit of the blue light power, or of Carter’s powers?
Too often in these films (fantasy/sci-fi) we see a clash of undefined superpowers that is expected to draw suspense, but fails to do so. Example: Carter has to make a climactic ‘impossible’ jump, but because we have no reference as to what he is capable of, the scene fails to engage us.
On Earth, we know the stakes: those roofs seem pretty far apart, that guy is holding a gun, the consequence is death. In this fantasy, we need the writers to provide that information: show the limits of the jumping abilities in an earlier scene, and the consequences if he falls here. Carter instinctively “looks down” before the jump, as if the writers wanted to relay the danger, but we’ve seen him fall great distances before with no damage.
Burroughs’ serials and novels all went by different names, but there’s one thing they had in common: “of Mars”, which has been shorn from this film’s title in an effort to appeal to a wider audience (and possibly, in reaction to last year’s disappointing Cowboys & Aliens).
Ultimately, this is a film caught between fully embracing the pulp nature of the material, and obscuring the more genre-specific material for mass appeal to justify its massive ($250 million) budget. Still, it’s plenty fun.
John Carter was shot in two dimensions and converted to 3D in post-production. While many of the CGI elements look fine, the majority of the film looks dim and murky and only vaguely better than The Phantom Menace conversion, which has the excuse of being originally released more than a decade ago.
I was pretty shocked to see a level of brightness and clarity on my computer during this ten-minute 1080p YouTube clip (which is also one of the better sequences in the film) that was sorely missing from the theatrical version.