Now that the media tongue-lashings have more or less subsided, audiences watching John Carter in the approaching weeks on their fashionably high-def, big-screen TVs may arrive at the surprising conclusion that Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of the century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs pulps is merely another huge American movie that doesn’t quite hit its marks. That’s right folks, it’s not that bad, and as huge misbegotten would-be sci-fi swashbucklers go, it’s even occasionally charming.
A potentially insurmountable problem here is that nearly every fantasy writer or filmmaker since the history of cinema has strip-mined Burroughs’s original work, so John Carter, despite representing a return to the original creative well, feels like an old-hat regurgitation of everything from Superman to Star Wars to most recently, and obviously, Avatar. That John Carter also pales in comparison to most of these movies is a much greater issue. Say what you will about Avatar, but the film established the rules of its rain-forest planet setting quickly, in a crisp first act and moved the hell on. John Carter is cumbersome and monotonous; the exposition never stops, yet you never feel as if you have a sufficient grasp of what’s going on.
The film concerns that most archetypal of fantasy heroes: the damaged man with a past who learns to engage with society and even love again. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a tormented Civil War vet who loses his family and eventually gets magically whisked away to Mars while eluding generals who hope to utilize his skills as a solider. On Mars, Carter finds himself embroiled in another civil war, this one between two sets of human Martians called the Heliumites (the good guys) and the Zodangans (the bad guys). The dishy Helium warrior princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), pleads for Carter to help her combat the Zodangans so that she may evade the fate of marrying their leader, the nefarious Sab Than (Dominic West), who, of course, means to use the marriage as a ruse to overthrow the city of Helium once and for all.
For reasons never entirely clear to me, Sab Than is assisted by the possibly even more nefarious Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who, in reality, is a “thern,” which, I think, is a member of a race of beings that monitor and influence the rise and falls of various regimes across the universe. The therns, as it would happen, also have something to do with the medallion that enabled Carter’s unexpected inter-planetary travel, and they mean to ensure that the hunky and suddenly all-powerful Carter mind his own decidedly Earthly business. Tangentially involved are the Tharks, the race of 12-foot aliens that suggest buff super-evolved toads with several extra arms.
Difficult though it may be to belief, I’ve simplified the plot, which includes other rivalries and various other happenings both ancient and prophetical, and this gives you an idea of why John Carter doesn’t work. Stanton, who professes his love for Burroughs’s work throughout the supplemental materials included in this set, has approached his film with a more-is-more philosophy that exceeds his grasp as a director, and the film, despite its obvious ambitions, lacks the imagery or the obsessive power of films like Avatar or even that other similarly-themed disaster, Dune. John Carter is weighed down by minute details at the expense of providing simpler more satisfying pleasures. While the film is vastly more enjoyable than any of the Star Wars prequels, they share a similar fixation on big-budget pageantry and convoluted plotting that ultimately feel beside the point. It never takes off because it never feels alive.
Still, there are bright spots. Kitsch and Taylor have clearly been cast for their considerable physical contributions, but they’re also rather charming when speaking their thanklessly dorky dialogue, and they have as much chemistry as is probably possible under the circumstances. You’re meant to cheer Carter and his princess as they elude the endless and vaguely defined baddies, but you may find yourself rooting more for Kitsch and Taylor to transcend the unwieldiness of the production. There’s a surprisingly touching animal sidekick called a Woola, which is a big, blobby dog creature that can run at lightning speed. A few of the action scenes deliver, particularly a gladiatorial showdown between Carter, a Thark, and a couple of huge blind albino gorillas. Best of all there’s Michael Giacchino’s score, which is a moving, nearly classic piece of work that suggests the awe that eludes the actual film. Try though it may, John Carter is the endeavor of a magician who hasn’t the skill to mask the exertion that goes into pulling off his tricks.
The images have been rendered with an eye-popping beauty and clarity. One can make out every gear and cog in the flying warships that resemble giant mosquitoes, the desert vistas exhibit an attention to texture that’s stunning, and the red vistas of Mars also have a painterly grandeur that’s unusual in most big-budget American filmmaking these days. No image flaws were visible to this critic’s eye. The sound mix has depth and dimension, carefully balancing Michael Giacchino’s unexpectedly plaintive score with the de rigueur exploding, banging, and clanging of battle films.
The extras are forgettable but generally substantive. The filmmakers’ commentary is a cordial and informative discussion of the film that covers the evolution of the script, special-effects challenges, and late-inning editing decisions regarding the ordering of the scenes, among other things. "Disney Second Screen" basically covers the same ground with on-set footage to compliment it. The deleted scenes are standard, though they convey the challenge of parceling out so much expository information while keeping the story afloat. "360 Degrees of John Carter" establishes the enormity of the production with a 30-minute "day in the life" structure that follows the production team on day fiftysomething as they shoot the climactic battle. And "100 Years in the Making," the most enjoyable feature, is a brief tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs that could’ve actually stood to be longer. There’s also a two-minute bloopers reel.
The odd, uneven John Carter is better than you’d expecting, but it’s still an unwieldy collection of mostly half-realized dreams.