(by Dustin Putman
The fantasy genre is a delicate cinematic business to get right, and with that in mind it is not surprising that the story of "John Carter," inspired by the serialized novel "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs, has been in some form of development since 1931. What is surprising, however, is that eighty years still was apparently not enough time to do the project justice. Garish and derivatively designed, the film finally seeing the light of day carries with it an alleged $250-million price tag that might have been better served feeding a third-world country. Or a first-world one. The point is, it's a nearly impenetrable disaster of a movie, a cross between an inferior "Star Wars" prequel, a clumsy, lower-rent "Avatar" rehash, and 2010's infamously maligned "The Last Airbender." Writer-director Andrew Stanton, until now a formidable filmmaker for Pixar (most notably, he helmed 2003's "Finding Nemo" and 2008's "Wall•E"), and co-writers Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon must have warring sensibilities. How else to explain a hodgepodge concoction of disparate otherworldly elements at the service of a dippy premise and one-note characters whom the viewer is given no reason to care a single iota about? Article continues below
The plot makes roughly as much sense as a doped-up hospital patient prattling on about cockamamie hallucinatory thoughts and visions for two-plus hours. The strikes against it begin within the first frames as a narrator starts tossing out so many unrecognizable names of fictional places and people on Mars (named "Barsoom" for no apparent reason) that it instantly becomes frustrating. Couldn't the same thing have been accomplished—and made more sense for the viewer—had we been visually introduced to these things rather than lazily told about them without context? From here, the setting switches to Earth in 1881, where a young Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned to the estate where his late uncle, Virginia cavalryman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), has been laid to rest. Burroughs is left a journal, within it an extensive letter from Carter that explains the events that led him to an early grave. Thirteen years ago while gold-hunting in the Arizona Territory, Carter was approached in a cave by a mysterious man who materialized out of nowhere and zapped him to Barsoom via a powerful teleportation device. Disoriented at first, then amused by his newfound abilities in an atmosphere with a weaker gravitational pull, John Carter is eventually involved in the clash between battling city-states Helium and Zodanga over dwindling resources. Beyond that, there's a beautiful warrior-princess named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Colins), she of the red Martian race, who is to be married on the night of two moons, and a whole slew of different species of creature and humanoid, each of them designed to be as off-putting and dopey as possible.
"John Carter" is an oversized beast of clunky storytelling, groan-inducing screenwriting, and heavy-handed filmmaking (let's not even get into the dirty dishwater 3D), a blending of the incoherent and the thoroughly uninvolving that left this viewer counting the minutes until the punishment would all be over. There is no excitement worked up by any of the throwaway action scenes, no intrigue boasted from the dreary non-stop exposition, and no characters to care one way or the other about. They're just there, and that extends to lead John Carter, a sullen, bland puppet of a protagonist. In one fell swoop, Taylor Kitsch (2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") has been shredded of every last glimmer of quiet magnetism he exhibited week after week as Tim Riggins on TV's masterful "Friday Night Lights." Here, he's simply relegated to being an anybody of run-of-the-mill pretty-boy proportions. Thank goodness Princess Dejah has him figured out. "A warrior may change his metal, but not his heart," she tells Carter in just one of a consistent stream of bad lines.
One would think that if the story itself is lacking, at least the visuals might keep one preoccupied. The problem is that the world of Barsoom doesn't look much different than a dusty, arid desert, and all that brown and orange, dulled behind 3D glasses in its theatrical rendering, quickly grows ugly and repetitive. The alien cities, the differing ways of life, even the transportation—a flying amalgamation of a helicopter and a motorcycle—are thrown into a melting pot of underdevelopment and disorganization. The characters ride on the backs of eight-legged half-rhinoceroses/half-platypuses. The comic sidekick (if you can call it that) comes in the form of the love child of an excitable dog and Jabba the Hutt. Early on when John arrives on Barsoom, he encounters a naturally foreign language he doesn't understand in the least—this barrier is overcome later when he drinks a magic potion—and it is a sloppy miscalculation to have said dialogue subtitled. Since the audience is supposed to be following John's point-of-view, wouldn't it be more effective and appropriately disorienting to be right next to him, in confusion over what these strange creatures might be saying. This is a minor point, but one symbolic of the top-to-bottom poor decisions Walt Disney Pictures has made in greenlighting this project before it was in filmable shape.
Leading up to its release and with understandable rumblings that the studio might have an expensive bomb on their hands, "John Carter" has been terribly advertised and marketed, made to look like some sort of sci-fi "Gladiator" where the title characters faces off against alien opponents in an arena. In truth, this segment takes up all of five minutes of screen time. Were Disney honest, though, the film wouldn't look any better, a pedestrian orgy of would-be fantastical sights and sounds that have been seen and heard—and been uniformly better—in countless other similar genre pictures. Trying to emulate 2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," for example, shouldn't be high on anyone's priorities. Meanwhile, Mark Strong (2011's "Green Lantern") plays the bald, robed, glowing-eyed, and naturally unsavory Matai Shang like a weirdo with a staring problem. Willem Dafoe (2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant") and Samantha Morton (2008's "Synecdoche, New York") are among the unrecognizable players hidden under digital effects as Na'vi rejects Tars Tarkas and Sola. And, in a wraparound sequence that is altogether better than anything set on godforsaken Barsoom, Daryl Sabara (2011's "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World") is appropriately wide-eyed and curious as the young Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's a last-minute reprieve that comes too little, too late. "Thank God that's over with!" one character utters near the end of "John Carter." No spoken words have ever been truer.