Based on the series of not-Tarzan novels first written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1911, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is a disappointment over 100 years in the making. And considering how many established sci-fi/fantasy cinematic classics owe their very existence to Burroughs’ original stories, that’s really too bad. Many directors have attempted to get a John Carter film off the ground—most recently, Iron Man’s Jon Favreau—but only Finding Nemo and Wall-E helmer Stanton had been able to successfully convince the suits at Disney to back his vision to the tune of a reported $250 million. The money’s certainly accounted for in terms of grand visual punch, but where’s the rest of it?
John Carter tells the story of a scrappy ex-confederate soldier looking for his fortune while evading Union forces attempting to conscript him back into service. After a standoff between soldiers and Apache goes badly, Carter escapes to a cave containing not only his fortune in gold, but a MacGuffin capable of projecting him instantly to Barsoom (Mars). There, he’s a man with super powers thanks to the planet’s lighter gravity and quickly becomes embroiled in a planetary war. Soon enough, he’s leading giant multi-limbed warrior Tharks along with a (scene-stealing) 10-legged, reptilian dog-like Woola, and defending a beautiful rust-hued princess from the perils of forced marriage.
Sadly, the rollicking adventure described above is delivered only fitfully. The production design by frequent-Christopher Nolan collaborator, Nathan Crowley, is top-notch, smartly incorporating a wonderful retro-future motif to sets, vehicles and various apparatus. But somehow the script, co-written by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, as well as the screenplay of the outstanding Spider-Man 2), proves a convoluted mishmash of disparate elements from multiple John Carter books, creating a muddle of what could have been sprightly paced, pulpy fun. The studio’s ambition to turn John Carter into a franchise is obvious—and expected—so why did the filmmakers overburden this first entry with so much momentum-grinding, extraneous exposition every 15 minutes or so?
Worried, perhaps, that contemporary audiences would find it impossible to be swept up in the decidedly old-fashioned exploits and adorably outdated conceptualization of astronomy, we find the tall tale framed in misguided “how meta” bookending by Burroughs himself, with the young author reading Carter’s journal and participating in a “mystery” that really wasn’t needed in the first place.
Taylor Kitsch brings a certain James Franco-meets-Sam Worthington presence to the proceedings that’s exactly the level of beefiness-meets-walking-pile-of-duh one expects, but the onscreen chemistry between Carter and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) fails to reach even “Easy Bake Oven pre-heat” levels. Meanwhile, superb actors such as The Wire’s Domenic West and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston are either buried under piles of thudding dialog or left to rot (literally). Tellingly, the best performances belong to the fantastic—and convincing—CG menagerie of alien creatures.
It’s tempting to believe a great sci-fi yarn exists in Carter, somewhere in the no doubt thick sheaf of studio notes demanding more spoon-feeding of an audience they believe to be equally thick. But more likely, it’s possible that Stanton simply wasn’t ready to make the leap from animation to super-budgeted live action. While Pixar colleague Brad Bird has successfully navigated the transition—directing a Mission: Impossible sequel actually worth seeing—Stanton, though a filmmaker of considerable talent, might want to make his next project a smaller, more down-to-Earth one.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon (screenplay); Edgar Rice Burroughs (story “A Princess of Mars”)
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: Mar. 9, 2012