John Carter (DVD/Blu-Ray) – Dir. Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe.
High-budget, low-imagination Disney adventure with no sense of direction and no soul.
Its generic title isn’t much of a clue, but John Carter is a movie about a war on the planet Mars. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is the star of a mostly forgotten early 20th century pulp series by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Relatively true to its origins, John Carter has the title hero, a former civil war army captain, mysteriously transported to Mars, where he gets caught up with the natives (who range from tusk-faced green frog people to suntanned Englishmen) and their apocalyptic war. The planet’s slightly lower gravity gives Carter superior strength and agility, which by Hollywood logic means he can leap something close to a mile in a single bound.
Like Brad Bird and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, this film is the live action debut of Pixar director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E). But unlike Bird, none of Stanton’s skill at streamlined storytelling and digital character wrangling has carried over to the world of carbon-based actors. John Carter is a bloated, convoluted near-disaster.
The film’s lengthy setup, with its dozens of hastily introduced races, characters, and factions, feels simultaneously rushed and plodding, like a heavily abridged version of a slightly boring epic.
From there, it’s a tangled and occasionally baffling web of opposing human armies who are difficult to tell apart, messy flashes between time periods, and at least one shapeshifter. Nothing is done to make us care about the struggle between a city-state that is apparently evil because it is murdering the planet and another that is apparently good because a hot princess (Lynn Collins) lives there.
Leading the bad guys is a villain (Dominic West) who isn’t given 60 seconds of uninterrupted screen time to demonstrate a personality, and who is being manipulated by another group of villains who basically admit straight-up to having no motives.
They are only slightly worse than Carter himself: a clichéd, uninteresting hero driven only by his hopes of making it with the aforementioned princess. Lazy narrative shortcuts (like a drink that inexplicably lets Carter understand the local language) and plot holes abound.
Somewhere deep within this film is a handful of intriguing vintage pulp sci fi ideas: a man made into a superhero by Newtonian physics, space travel via “astral projection” instead of rockets, and even the romantic image of Mars as something more than a cold, dead rock (an image ruined over the last century by science, that perennial spoilsport).
A film that played up those campy elements in the vein of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow might have been more successful than what we got instead: an excessively slick and modern Disney formula film too embarrassed to even put the word “Mars” in its title. But it’s more likely that John Carter and his outdated adventures are simply better left in the past.
Rated PG-13 for interspecies romance.
2.5 out of 5