Directed by Andrew Stanton
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe
How long is John Carter? 132 minutes.
What is John Carter rated? PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Disney’s latest not an epic fail, but mediocre at best.
This weekend’s John Carter has been a long time coming. The media conglomerate (there’s no longer a less-evil-sounding term for Disney) took on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and announced its intentions to make John Carter of Mars what seems like ages ago. After a number of incarnations, the title was shortened to John Carter. (A friend noted that “Mars” in the title would have alienated women, and “A Princess of Mars,” the title of the book on which the film is based, would have alienated men. So John Carter it is.)
Andrew Stanton, a director who normally works with Pixar (and whose WALL-E was one of the best movies of the last decade) signed on to direct his first live-action flick. Stanton teamed up with brilliant author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) to pen the script. TV stars Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights’ dreamy Tim Riggins), Lynn Collins (True Blood), Dominic West (The Wire), and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) snapped into place in leading and secondary roles. Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, and Mark Strong jumped aboard. And the budget? Oh, it ballooned. The movie’s credits include so many visual effects and art department crew members your eyes will cross.
The end result, unfortunately, is about two hundred million dollars worth of mediocre. Burroughs’s books were pulpy, light, implausible science fiction, and the movie feels the same despite its ostensible scale. Young Ned Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is called suddenly to his uncle John Carter’s estate, but when he arrives dear uncle John (Kitsch) has passed away suddenly. Burroughs was bequeathed his uncle’s diary, which tells a fantastic story. Carter, as it turns out, was a “born fighter,” a stubborn, bitter young man who refused to take sides in the Civil War after the horrid death of his wife and daughter. He and Major Powell (Bryan Cranston) discover a mysterious cave in the desert while seeking solace from the Indian hordes. Suddenly, Carter finds himself magically telegraphed to Barsoom, an arid red planet on which gravity has no real hold (for Carter, anyway).
Here he meets a green, four-armed, two-horned race of creatures called Tharks, led by Tars Tarkus (Dafoe). The Tharks kidnap him and feed him some drug that forces him to listen to “the voice of Barsoom,” which negates the language barrier and allows Carter to become a part of the culture of Mars. Little does Carter know, the red and the blue, the metaphorical North and South, aren’t yet done with him. The cities of Helium and Zodanga are fighting a never-ending battle, and the Tharks are casualties in the fight for power.
Dejah Thoris (Collins), princess of Helium, escapes from a forced marriage to Sab Than (West), the monstrous, evil ruler of Zodanga, only to fall literally into John Carter’s arms. She struggles to recruit Carter to Helium’s side. Carter wants nothing to do with these otherworldly battles, until, of course, he does. No hero worth his salt refuses to fight for the good guys, after all. Throughout all of this, Carter observes an outside force directing the violence: the Thurns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) are a race of immortal beings who serve the goddess Iss. They travel from planet to planet, “managing destruction,” and they have assigned this planet’s destruction to Sab Than. In a final blow to Mars, after the marriage meant to ensure peace Sab Than plans to murder Dejah Thoris and wrest power from the Jeddak (King) of Helium. Carter has to figure out a way to stop this, and (after a fairly awesome gladiatorial battle) recruits the Tharks to help.
There are a number of secondary characters (Tarkus’s weakling daughter Sola, voiced by Samantha Morton, a faithful dog-monster-creature called Woola) that occasionally help save the day. All in all, the screenplay feels forced and trite, predictable where it needn’t be. Some of this, I’m sure, is Burroughs’s books. Chabon has a demonstrated affection for comics and early pulp fiction and would’ve insisted on a faithful adaptation.
The friend who noted that “Mars” in the title would alienate women got this response from me: “Pfft. Taylor Kitsch is enough to get women in seats,” and particularly a shirtless Taylor Kitsch. The actor, whose performance in Friday Night Lights was nothing short of brilliant, puts his all into this role but had very little to work with. His chemistry with Collins is forced, the abundance of bare skin from both of them oddly sexless.
The movie’s most redeeming quality is its appearance. While it isn’t as magnificent to behold as that piece of beautiful schlock Avatar, John Carter sure is pretty. The flying machines are properly steampunky; the moving city of Zodanga is ominous and fascinating. The Tharks and Woola are artfully rendered in painstaking detail. Unfortunately, it isn’t worth the extra dollars to see in 3D – 2D would’ve sufficed. Basically, if you’re interested in escapist sci-fi, it’s your flick.
“Epic fail” has insinuated itself into our language in meme form along with “lol” and “smh,” and critics are more or less applying it to John Carter. That’s unfair. It is an epic, and its box office may be shameful compared to its budget, but it’s neither the worst movie ever made nor even a particularly bad one. It’s just a movie, an expensive one to be sure, and possibly a rare Disney misstep. But it is nonetheless pretty, fun to behold, and not an epic fail. Just a minor one.