With its $250 million budget (remember when a hundred mil was considered bloated for a film’s production?), John Carter is Disney’s expensive attempt to build a live-action blockbuster franchise. But if there is to be a second installment that isn’t as arid as its Martian setting, the filmmakers would be wise to focus as much on the screenplay as on the special effects.
Whatever magic director Andrew Stanton conjured with Finding Nemo and Wall-E, he doesn’t have the same touch here, and is unable to breathe life into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp fiction series from early last century. The storytelling is rushed and muddled (Stanton also co-scripted), leading to scenes that lack dramatic weight or interest. For all its plot about warring tribes on Mars and the human who comes along to save the day, John Carter — though sincere — is a slog.
As the movie opens, its title character is a cynical, gold-seeking Civil War veteran whose wife and young daughter have been murdered. While hiding from Apache Indians, Carter ventures into a cave where he is met by an alien being. A few magic words later, and Carter awakens to find himself on the dry landscape of Mars (the planet is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), discovering that the change in gravity has given him the ability to leap vast distances. It’s a trait that comes in handy when he intercedes in another civil war — this one between the rival city-states of Zodanga and Helium. Coinciding with Carter’s arrival, Helium Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) is being forced (with her father’s consent) to marry the Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West) to protect her city and people from destruction. Meanwhile, Sab Than is a pawn for the Therns, an arrogant religious group in possession of advanced technology. In his quest to save Helium and impress Dejah, Carter fights alongside a race of tall, six-limbed beings called Tharks (voiced by actors including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton).
Exotic names and a crowded cast of characters are no substitute for a good story, and the epic John Carter brings to mind is the recently re-released Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace. Both share interesting visuals, dull, two-dimensional characters, and exposition-heavy plots. They also hinge on our empathy for endangered civilizations about which we know very little beyond the tin-eared pronouncements of state leaders from within their ancient-looking palaces.
Taylor Kitsch (late of the TV version of Friday Night Lights), who stars in another would-be blockbuster later this year, Battleship, shows his mettle in the fight scenes. But he doesn’t act so much as strike attitudes of defiance and smirk like a bad-ass. While that broad-stroke approach is in keeping with the flavor of the film, it doesn’t make the character all that interesting. Neither is the movie that bears his name.