Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean unexpectedly morphed into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut Walt Disney Pictures has been on a tear to unearth a new live-action tentpole franchise capable of attracting young males to the multiplex by the horde. So far, this questionable business objective has motivated the company to foolishly squander bordering-on-obscene resources on the synthetic, terribly written blockbuster non-starters The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Tron: Legacy, to little financial gain. For a company famed for harnessing the limitless potential of imagination and awing audiences of all ages, these failures were more than a little embarrassing. After all, it’s darn hard to sell toys or build theme park attractions based on dead-end cinematic endeavours.
The Mouse House’s latest kick at the can, the woefully generic-sounding John Carter, doesn’t quite reverse this sad trend but it’s at least a step in the right direction. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s near-century old literary creation, the film is a big, broad sci-fi swash-buckling spectacle that enthusiastically embraces its spaced-out, pulpy roots – frequently to its own narrative detriment – and paints the screen with vivid visions of grand otherworldliness. It’s not a particularly stellar movie; however those who maintain a love for geeky, old-fashioned thrills will appreciate the flashes of invention, ambition and wit that shine through the straight-faced, messy silliness.
Set in the dusty, arid vistas of Barsoom (or Mars, in human terms), the adventure kicks off when a roguish, daring former Confederate captain named John Carter (Taylor Kitsch – delivering a performance that’s a cross between Han Solo and Clint Eastwood) happens upon the red planet via a mysterious portal in a cave. Afforded enhanced strength and the ability to leap immense distances by the strange environment’s gravity, the intrepid protagonist quickly happens upon a warrior tribe of green, six-limbed Tharks. Led by the noble Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), they’re a cheerfully rough and tumble lot who, impressed by their visitor’s mile-high jumps, take him prisoner and introduce him into their violent society.
Things become even more complicated when gutsy Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins – a regal screen presence with charisma to spare), fleeing the grasp of evil, mystical weapon-wielding warlord Sab Than (Dominic West), surrenders herself to the Tharks. Desperately seeking aid for her threatened people in the majestic city-state of Helium, the butt-kicking damsel catches the appreciative eye of her fellow prisoner, and soon the improbable duo, accompanied by kind, disgraced Thark woman Sola (Samantha Morton – occupying a role that’s something of a plot afterthought), escapes into the Barsoonian desert. Tracked by foes of all races, Carter must decide which side to fight for in the conflict and find a means of foiling Than’s sinister plan to force Dejah into a marriage he falsely promises will unite the land.
John Carter has long been a passion project for director Andrew Stanton, the Oscar-winning Pixar genius behind Wall-e and Finding Nemo, and, for better and worse, his infatuation is evident in every frame. Although this film is light years away from his celebrated animated classics, the helmer does a commendable job establishing an authentic, lived-in universe and filling it with loving homages – from Planet of the Apes to John Ford’s legendary cavalry pictures – and genuinely fun moments. Many will appreciate the hero’s slam-bang face-off in the arena against a pair of monstrous white apes, or a lively sequence featuring the bewildered American discovering his powers, yet it’s the smaller, quirkier bits that really resonate. The helmer mines cheerful humour from the ongoing culture clash misunderstandings between the Tharks and their earthly captive (“Virginia!” becomes an amusing go-to joke), or from the hyper-active antics of Carter’s loyal Martian dog Woola. There’s also a brilliant early sequence wherein a frustrated colonel played by Bryan Cranston fails to properly detain our lead character. Repeatedly.
Stanton isn’t quite as successful on the story front. While John Carter is largely derived from the first book in the series, A Princess of Mars, the director/co-writer and fellow scribes Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon eagerly throw a few too many extra elements into the pot, unnecessarily overcomplicating what was originally a fairly simple, rousing yarn. The film is too top-heavy, with a trio (!) of prologues dragging the energy down when it’s needed most, and often devolves into listless scenes of human characters explaining things to one another in tedious, occasionally impenetrable, Martian mumbo-jumbo. This is a story that should have been snappy and laser-focused, able to be easily understood by young movie-goers, and not convoluted to the point of confusion (in Avatar, James Cameron knew exactly how to clearly communicate the type of dense, out-there information that bogs down Carter). It also isn’t interested enough in its own star. Carter isn’t a particularly rich character on the page, and the movie doesn’t bring much more to the table, failing to provide him with enough depth to make us truly care about his transformation. We never get a good sense of who he is as a person, outside of a few sporadic, moodily-lit flashbacks that don’t exactly radiate emotion.
That said, where Stanton’s film stumbles most is in the bad guy department. This is one action-adventure tale burdened by a serious villain problem. With so much to set up in regards to establishing its unique cinematic world and abundance of inhabitants, it might have benefited to stick with a single fiendish force of antagonism. Unfortunately, John Carter supplies three – four, if you count Polly Walker’s scheming Thark Sarkoja – and all of them feel shortchanged and forgettable. For a genre that depends so heavily on fashioning remarkable portraits of treachery, this just unacceptable. Mark Strong, as a supernatural puppet master secretly controlling events, does a really tired variation of his Green Lantern would-be arch-enemy Sinestro (and again serves the sorry function of acting as a walking, talking sequel teaser) and West’s Sab Than is a complete void of a character. Only an under-used Thomas Haden Church, as a brutal Thark with designs on stealing leadership from Tars Tarkis, manages to stand out. And that’s predominantly because he at least looks cool.
In spite of the litany of script issues, though, there’s a pleasant, wide-eyed sincerity to Stanton’s reverential effort that works strongly in its favour. This is not a picture destined to make much of an impact, or, for that matter, lead to a more confident follow-up. Rather, it’s agreeable enough escapist eye candy that – similar to the Star Wars prequels – hums along when the masterfully orchestrated action and dazzling fantastical sights are unfolding, but trips over itself when story or dialogue take center stage. Unlike its titular figure, John Carter doesn’t succeed so much in leaps and bounds as it does fits and starts.
3 out of 5