After watching John Carter, it’s easy to see director Andrew Stanton’s ambition. Featuring a world filled with warring nations, loads of CGI and a bombastic score, Stanton was clearly going for a power that matched the science fiction films that paved Carter’s way to the silver screen. Despite my respect for Stanton and his attempts here, John Carter is a mess that was likely brought down by a director that was too passionate to hear the dissenting voices of his creative team. Based on two novels that hail from the early twentieth century, John Carter is a cocktail of genres. Its fusion between a western attitude and intergalactic musings would suggest that we’d be receiving a tasty concoction. But much like a similar film that came before it, Cowboys and Aliens, John Carter tastes like a watered down beverage that we paid too much for. Our lackluster journey begins with a confederate soldier, clearly named John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who finds himself transported to Mars, which has been under the weight of its own civil war (parallels!).
Being that he’s on foreign soil and surrounded by strange creatures, Carter aggressively seeks his way back to Earth. On our planet lies Carter’s greatest burden: his dead wife and daughter. A backstory this tragic should be enough to propel any character’s motivation, but it’s as sporadic as a rainstorm in the desert. For all intents and purposes, Carter might as well be using his dead family as a crutch to avoid being caught in a tediously vague war. To no one’s surprise, and in spite of Carter’s grieving state, he gets roped into the ongoing battle between Zodanga and Helium, two warring nations that are fighting for Mars’ future. The former wears the mask of evil, albeit without a motivation that is compelling. Being that Helium has a sexy, kick-ass princess on their throne named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and an altruistic view on science, Carter is thrust into their direction. Like any brooding warrior, Carter becomes an active part in protecting Helium’s cause, as well as a key component in eradicating a political conspirator in Matai Shang (Mark Strong). I should also probably mention that Carter becomes enslaved to a nation of four-armed, green people known as the Thark. Obviously John Carter rises above slave status and becomes an adopted warrior for the group of people, which realistically only exist because the film needs computer generated beasts as a tent pole film.
With sarcasm aside, John Carter features a lot of moving parts with no clear indication as to why its villains are doing what they’re doing. Perhaps more damning is the film makes no effort to deliver a point. Actually, it makes a concerted effort to be the first film in a trilogy that solely acts as a springboard to a sequel (think Pirate of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). Despite the film feeling like a prologue, Stanton does manage to produce a few terrific scenes. The apex of his vision revolves around John Carter unleashing his fury on a horde of Tharks, while the burial of his family intercuts and weaves throughout the carnage. The triumphant moment resonates emotionally, but Stanton and the screenplay do little to sustain the potency for the entire film. Part of the blame rests on the screenplay’s inability to establish a coherent plot. Even with all the expected exposition, the film can’t efficiently operationally define (motives and physical appearance) the people who inhabit its world. At times I felt like I needed a roster breakdown to know who was who. Without proper distinction, life on Mars feels quite dull and unimaginative.
Speaking of dull, Taylor Kitsch, despite his physical prowess, is a black hole of a leading man. He lacks the charisma to lead a film as big as this, and it shows in the developing romance between his John Carter and Dejah. Sure, there are a few steamy glances, but nothing else that would justify their eventual love and Carter seemingly dismissing his dead wife. It’s plotting like this that ultimately brings down John Carter. The special effects are tremendous, but the film lacks any story or shade of hue that doesn’t remind us of better sci-fi films. It’s weird that John Carter lacks coherency with Stanton, a man who hails from the land of Pixar, behind the camera. Let’s hope Stanton’s next effort will be a more refined adventure.