It’s hard to parse Andrew Stanton‘s John Carter without acknowledging that the film has become a curiosity, as it’s a very expensive movie that never figured out how to sell itself. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, which suffers from a number of very familiar problems to the science fiction and blockbuster genres. Though the spectacle is often jaw-dropping in scale, Carter is incredibly clumsy in getting to those moments.
- Director: Andrew Stanton
- Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
- Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton
- Music: Michael Giacchino
- Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is sent an urgent telegram from his uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) telling him to come to his estate. When Edgar shows up, Carter is dead. Edgar is then instructed to read his story, which shows how Carter was a civil war veteran who was transported to Mars (which Martians call “Barsoom”) only to fall in love with a princess there. She’s Dejah Thoris (Collins), who is on the verge of discovering the power of the ninth ray, but the bad guys don’t like that so they’re going to force her to marry Sab Than (West). Sab’s a brute who’s been given a powerful ray gun-like weapon by the god-like Matai Shang (Strong). On Mars, Carter has tremendous powers to leap and punch, which makes him valuable to the Tharks, the four armed martians headed up by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe), but though he’s a reluctant hero, he falls quickly for Dejah.
- Spectacle: The rumors of how much this film cost run from $250 to more than $350 Million. As such, when there are giant flying boats in the film, and they crash and shoot at each other, it’s pretty cool. There are some good fight scenes and though it never feels all that alien so much as a movie shot in the desert, it looks great and there’s some scale.
- Lynn Collins: As Dejah Thoris, Collins makes a great impression as the female lead of the film. She’s smart, sexy and a fierce warrior, but there’s enough going on behind her eyes that it’s not just like watching the standard obligatory pretty girl in an action movie. She’s playing a character, not an object, and that’s a big relief.
- Wit: Though this is Andrew Stanton’s first live action feature, the man knows set up and punchlines through his time at Pixar, and so there’s some witty visual gags involving Carter’s first encounter with authority, and Stanton knows how to communicate ideas visually. And he makes perfect use of the space dog in the film.
- Did You Really Write This?: There were rumors of numerous re-shoots, and nothing shows post-production tinkering more than the opening of the movie. It starts with the bad guys (played mostly by Mark Strong) giving West’s character a powerful weapon. Then it cuts to John Carter sending a telegram while he’s followed. Then he dies and Edgar must start reading his journal, which then puts him in the old west as a reluctant warrior unwilling to fight the Indians. This is like twenty minutes or so of material before he goes to Mars, and it’s a total jumble of exposition and back story that’s seemingly there to inform the audience what’s going on but only seems to throw information at them. And when you have this sort of protracted prologue it means you have to have an extended epilogue, which is obnoxious because this is an action movie, and the main action is already over when there’s still ten to fifteen minutes of wrap up. When the big action sequences hit, they’re cool enough, but the story is nonsense. And after having to wait for a good chunk of running time for things to get going, by then it’s hard to care.
- Kitsch/Carter: Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter is a reluctant hero who eventually finds a reason to unleash his inner warrior, but his motivations are spelled out in capital letters, and he never seems to convincingly turn from one direction to another. On top of that his relationship with Dejah is mostly that of “she’s hot.” Kitsch was wonderful on Friday Night Lights, and his character is one of the high points of that show, but here he’s not a large enough presence to rise above the Martian landscapes. The film does recall the serials of the 1930′s, but the film would have been better served with an actor like Charlton Heston. Perhaps that’s unfair because there aren’t those actors any more, but it still remains a problem for the film.
- 3-D: The desert look of this film really worked against the dimensionality, as 3-D has a tendency to darken the image. For the majority of the movie, I spent wishing I could watch the 2-D version. There’s nothing truly great about the dimensionality of the film.
- White Ape: Much of the marketing has been based around John Carter fighting the big ape in the gladiator arena. This happens nearly two-thirds the way through the movie, and the danger of the apes is only mentioned in passing. If the white apes weren’t the lynchpin of the marketing this reveal might be cool, but…
Enough money was spent on this film to make it look and sound great. And there’s some good things about it. But other than Dejah Thoris, the characters are mostly blanks who go through the motions. It’s big empty spectacle, which has its place, but offers little other than passing thrills.
John Carter opens March 9.