Several of the directing titans (two being James Cameron and George Lucas) of today have recently stated that some of their influence is drawn from Edgar Rice Burroughs, writer of both Tarzan and John Carter From Mars. Both are quite clearly pieces of pulp (something that can also be seen in Cameron’s work), for those who have at least seen the novels or graphic novels in stores. Granted, I’ve never read the novels, but I feel like I have a reasonable grasp on the overall tone and appearance, which is well-set by director Andrew Stanton. Stanton’s missteps are what are so glaringly obvious. Overlong, awkwardly paced and bland storytelling make John Carter a disappointing experience–in 3-D, pointlessly enough. It never quite lives up to the entertaining, pulpy potential that a comic would have allowed.
Exhausted and jaded by war, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a decorated hero, is seeking out a cave where gold can be found. Carter was a Civil War Confederate captain, who now only lives for materialism. But things take an unexpected turn when Carter encounters a strange man, who, after a brief battle discovers a devise that transports him into another world. This world is called Barsoom by the natives, which we call Mars, as you might’ve already guessed. While on the planet, John Carter’s athletic abilities have increased tenfold: he can jump and leap extremely far and high. Having been noticed by the natives, he finds himself in a battle for the fate of Mars.
Stanton’s narrative flow is extremely weak and limps along to the finale. While his ability to tell a story is clearly there (judging his other work), John Carter has been reduced to a blotchy narrative without a through-line. We have some extravagant action sequences, where Carter is leaping from ship to ship in the azure sky, but it’s difficult to care much about whether or not he survives. Sab Than, the antagonist who looks to marry Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and control Mars, is played by Dominic West to pulpy, goofy effect (the costuming department certainly pushed it far enough). Even more, the chemistry between Kitsch and Collins is lackluster and lifeless. There’s never a spark between them that would emphasize a romantic entanglement. Mark Strong, who plays the omnipresent and unknown Matai Shang, is solid as always, though he’s given so little to work with.
So what else is there, exactly? Why was this movie such a blunder? In my opinion, it has everything to do with the amount of science-fiction films in the past forty years. We have had everything from hard sci-fi to cowboys-and-indians in space. A majority of the science-fiction writing giants and directors have all unanimously agreed that John Carter from Mars had a lasting effect on the genre and their work–but now that we finally have it here, it feels dull and soulless. The 3-D has been added on to increase the level of “immersion” with the environment, but it only pushes us further away from Stanton’s talents. In fact, John Carter might have been sufficiently better with a more dated look; instead of only using the pulp as an after thought, it could have been used as a central element–from the cinematography to the acting.
There’s nothing to really save John Carter in the end–not even the beautiful visuals that we have been given. Andrew Stanton is a solid filmmaker, for sure, but unfortunately John Carter is a huge misstep. He’ll move past this to better things, I’m sure, I simplyhope that this is a reminder that the script does matter. Even with a goofy piece of science-fiction fluff such as this, you need a through-line and some backbone. A good old fashioned adventure never hurt anyone, but you need more than John Carter has to offer. Taylor Kitsch sadly does not deliver as John Carter, making this whole adventure somewhat pointless. Disney and Andrew Stanton can certainly do better than this.