I spent some time before the screening of John Carter getting schooled by one of my fellow critics on the history of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character that inspired this new movie adaptation. John Carter first traveled to Mars a century ago, debuting as a pulp serial in 1912. The innovative sci-fi adventure from the creator of Tarzan has inspired all the generations of imaginative artists that have followed since, whether they work in comics or prose or even film. As my friend assured me, though there is much in John Carter that looks like it was borrowed from other science-fiction movies, the truth is those movies most likely stole their ideas from Burroughs.
It doesn't take long for this assertion to be proven true by John Carter. After a brief Flash Gordon-esque prelude, we are introduced to the title character in an earthbound sequence that is everything film fans hoped Cowboys and Aliens could have been. Over the two hours and fifteen minutes that John Carter clocks, you'll also see material that undoubtedly inspired George Lucas, Gene Rodenberry, James Cameron, and lord knows who else; and yet, the movie also has ideas to spare. If everything we see on screen originated from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original story, then the guy had an imagination that truly knew no boundaries. How revolutionary his concepts must have seemed a hundred years ago if they still manage to surprise us today!
I just hope Burroughs' storytelling is better than what director Andrew Stanton and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (The Wonder Boys) give us here. This cinematic John Carter just goes to show that all the ideas and good intentions in the world are useless if you don't have a clear focus on what to do with them.
Taylor Kitsch, whom my ladyfriends tell me played something called "Riggins" on the Friday Night Lights TV show, stars as the titular Carter, a Civil War vet who went looking for gold and ended up discovering another planet instead. After stumbling into an interplanetary gateway, John Carter finds himself the plaything of Tars Tarkus (a special effect voiced by Willem Dafoe), king of the Tharks, a race of exceptionally tall green Martians with four arms. The lighter gravity on Mars gives John tremendous agility and strength, making him a warrior both feared and revered. When the battle between two rival cities lands in the Tharks' front yard, John embarks on a quest with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the beautiful princess of Helium, to find a solution to both of their problems. Dejah is the pawn in a political game run by an ancient race of wizard-like watchers (led here by go-to villain Mark Strong, he of Kick-Ass). These interstellar mentalists have given her kingdom's greatest rival (The Wire's Dominic West) access to unbeatable ancient technology. John and Dejah fall in love, and she convinces him to fight for her people, though his commitment to combat is not without its bumps in the road. John Carter is going to have to battle his way through deserts, a gladiator's arena, a couple of Martian metropoli, and his own selfish urges before he can save this day.
John Carter is excessively long and poorly paced. Too many scenes waste time over-explaining plot elements that don't matter in the long run, creating long stretches between the action sequences, which is where the movie's real sizzle lies. The battles are massive in scope and the violence is often excessive--both things that are very good in terms of giving audiences something to enjoy, but regularly too little too late. The downtime might sit better if John Carter's leads weren't such wet blankets. Both Kitsch and Collins are terrible actors. When not growling his lines, Kitsch puts on a bad John Wayne impression. His abs are convincing, but there is little else about his delivery that works. He can't even kiss Collins with anything resembling passion. Then again, her performance is blustery and overstated, so maybe Kitsch finds her as exhausting as the rest of us.
Director Andrew Stanton's previous credits have all been in animation. Specifically, he is the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. The fact that he comes off as less capable of telling live actors what to do than he does putting their voices into computer-generated figures seems like an easy clichť to bang on, but then again, there is no way around it in a film where your human actors are regularly upstaged by a giant Martian pug dog. It certainly doesn't have to be that way--fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird jumped into the live-action arena quite successfully with the latest Mission: Impossible--but Stanton proves more capable at creating environments than he does anything else. Even then, however, I was surprised by how inconsistent John Carter's CGI was. The characters leaping around never look quite right, nor does the melding of actor and backgrounds in most of the flying scenes. None of this is helped by the post-production 3D, which is, at best, an unnecessary nuisance; at worst, it obscures the essential action and causes movement to appear blurry.
Not to say John Carter is all bad. Character and tech designs look fantastic. Action sequences are consistently thrilling (particularly that gladiatorial throwdown 3/4 in), and there are plenty of moments of genuine humor. A faster-paced movie with more flash and less labored attempts at substance could be whittled out of this final product; a merciless editor could fashion a pretty amazing 90-minute feature out of what is already there. Do away with the tedious framing sequence, cut down on the cosmic jibber jabber, and let loose. My gut here tells me that the filmmakers got too caught up in their reverence of the source narrative and thus enslaved themselves to it. That said, there are worse failings; at least the creative team faltered due to a love of the material rather than a slavish devotion to focus groups and marketing gimmicks. I have no doubt that Stanton and his crew made the movie that the 10-year-old versions of themselves who first read the John Carter novels wished they could see some day. It's just too bad they couldn't spare some consideration for the rest of us, since we're the folks who actually have to sit down and watch this thing they've concocted.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.