Sometimes, when you love something, you have to let it go. This is a message Andrew Stanton, writer/director of John Carter, could really have stood to learn. This adaptation of the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs brims over with love for the source material. But in his enthusiasm, Stanton forgot he was supposed to be telling a story. The result: John Carter is a visually spectacular mess of a film.
John Carter opens with your standard science fiction info dump. On Barsoom, the name the inhabitants of Mars have given to their planet, the Red Martian cities of Zodanga (baddies) and Helium (goodies) are at war. But the goodies are having some trouble, as Sab Than (Dominic West), Jeddak (king) of Zodanga is given access to an ultimate weapon by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), a Thern (aka bald space-wizard). And then, with the audience sufficiently informed and confused, the film suddenly whisks us back down to Earth. Here we are introduced to John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a US Civil War veteran, who is accidentally transported to Mars after stumbling into a mysterious cave.
Now, the good bit first. I now know why, at the previous John Carter Q&A, they wheeled the visual effects people into centre stage. This on-film world looks like imagination brought to life. Barsoom is a world full of strange monsters, weird geography and alien technology, and all of that is presented here in astonishing detail. Each race, Green Martians, Red Martians and Therns alike, has their own distinct style, and the intricacy of the jewellery and tattoo work is very impressive.
I should also say the acting is pretty good, though with a cast like this, that’s unsurprising. Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West and James Purefoy all deliver convincing performances. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins (as Martian princess Dejah Thoris), also do well for themselves. Willem DaFoe makes an excellent 15-ft tall, green-skinned, four-armed warrior, managing to preserve his distinctive look even without a nose. Best of the bunch for me though was Strong. He has that Rickman-esque quality of perfect, villainous poise that never fails to entertain.
But sadly that is it for compliments. John Carter may look good. Its actors may be doing well. But on a story level, this film is a bloated, directionless mess. Andrew Stanton, and his fellow writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, all love the books. This can be seen in their unwillingness to sacrifice any of A Princess of Mars’ massive cast of characters, or any of its subplots. This would be ok, were they not also aware of how simplistic the literary characters are, and so here try to give them some depth via backstory. As a result, they end up trying to force two films’ worth drama into one film, and fail miserably.
The main problem is that, with all these characters to introduce, plot threads to resolve and a whole fantasy world to build, the film leaves next to no time to properly develop Carter & Thoris’ relationship. They go from being slightly at odds to being in love, and have nowhere near enough steps in between. And theirs is the relationship to get the most time. Carter’s bromance with Tars Tarkus (DaFoe’s Martian) and the affection he comes to feel for Woola (a big alien dog-monster) are both stated, but again arise seemingly from nowhere.
The story too is massively flawed. It’s fairly incoherent, the exact plans of the baddies getting a fairly confused reveal and not making much sense to begin with. But the worst part is how Carter’s ‘refusing the call to action’ is handled. In an action flick, if your hero is going to start by refusing to be a hero, it’s generally a good idea not to have him refuse for too long. Otherwise it just feels like the film is treading water and wasting your time. John Carter is meant to be a rip-roaring jaunt through a strange and alien world. It is supposed to be fast paced and energetic. Instead, it plods like a depressed elephant.
I think I might leave it at that. There are things still left to say about John Carter, like how hamfisted some of the direction is, or how amazingly bland the score is, but these are rants for another day. Suffice it to say that John Carter is a film that looks great, but storywise, is a dismal failure. Yet more evidence that, when it comes time to turn the things you love into movies, you can’t be afraid to sharpen your shears.