Arriving in theaters on a wave of press that has included much chatter about the film’s budget, its reshoots and the expectations Disney has on the project, “John Carter” is not your ordinary tentpole in more ways than one. Rarely do films meet this kind of scrutiny on the way to the theater, but given the years in development this project has been through, and the new do-or-die, go big or go home ethos that Disney currently embraces, it was perhaps inevitable. But when the lights go down, the 3D glasses go on and the movie starts, it’s all about what’s on the screen and unfortunately for the studio and director Andrew Stanton, “John Carter” is a mess. Strangely uninvolving and needlessly convoluted, “John Carter” spends over two hours making the case for being a franchise, without ever really becoming a movie.
The film’s problems are apparent right from the opening frame, where a dry, expository voiceover greets us with a marble mouthed explanation that Mars is indeed inhabited, and in the midst of some of kind of power struggle, with the leader of Zodanga stripping the planet of its resources while the heads of Helium are trying to stop them. We are then plunged immediately into a spaceship battle between two groups of anonymous fighters, one in red capes and another in blue capes, but the ultimate result is that McNulty from “The Wire” is given the gift of some kind Venom-like blue weapon thing that wraps around his forearm, from a mysterious, baldheaded Mark Strong in a shiny robe. The trade off being that McNulty now has a badass weapon in exchange for letting Strong pull the strings of power behind him. And then we jump back to the post-Civil War era on Earth, where we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who evades a man who is following him, sends a telegram to his nephew and then dies. His nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (eyeroll) arrives, and is told that he is the recipient of John Carter’s vast wealth, and is given a for-your-eyes-only journal to read, penned by his uncle. And thus begins the flashback, which lasts nearly the entire length of the movie, that explains what happened to John Carter and how he winds up on Mars.
As if the power struggle between Zodanga and Helium isn’t enough, when John Carter lands on the red planet, he winds up being a prisoner/pawn in another tug-of-war between battling leaders of the Tharks, some very tall, thin, four armed green aliens with tusks. But through an elaborate set of circumstances, John Carter escapes from the Tharks, gains the loyalty of an alien dog, crosses paths with Dejah (Lynn Collins), the princess of Helium and two more times in the first hour, has what’s going on in the plot explained to him to by other characters. The long and short of it is that Dejah is being sold off into marriage with McNulty to save her people and planet from destruction, while John Carter kind of doesn’t give a shit and just wants to get home.
But here is where the main issue with “John Carter” crops up — if John Carter cares little for the fate of Mars, it’s hard for the audience to be all that invested. Implausibly, it takes John Carter nearly half the movie before Dejah clues him in that he’s not lost in some weird part of the Arizona desert while prospecting for gold, but that he’s on Mars. We suppose the space ships, aliens and ability to defy gravity (dude can jump really high) didn’t tip him off. Once he realizes this, it makes his initial endeavor to find a medallion that will allow him to transport back home all the more desperate. He enjoins Dejah to help him, and she uses the opportunity to both deceive him and explain (again) the whole story of Zodanga and Helium, basically doing everything in her power to convince John Carter to help her. Eventually, and just in time for the last third of the movie, John Carter decides that he will help her out after all. But whether he stays or goes, the audience can’t be made to care either way. Back on Earth he was a wanted man, haunted by grief over the loss of his wife and child, living a largely solitary life in pursuit of treasure. Here on Mars, he has a greater purpose, and we’re led to believe that he suddenly cares for Dejah, but considering they spend most of the film unable to trust each other, it’s a hard sell. As for Dejah, who is a professor of science (or something) in addition to being princess, she starts off the movie having nearly found the elusive “ninth ray” (don’t ask) that powers the weapon McNulty has been given by Mark Strong, who we learn is Holy Thern, some sort of superbeing who can shapeshift and teleport at will and wields the ultimate power on Barsoom (what the Martians call Mars, though we suppose this means they’re Barsoomians).
For all the talk of retooling the film, and making it the best it can be, it’s particularly galling just how poorly and lazily structured the screenplay really is. John Carter doesn’t actually learn that Mark Strong is the villain until nearly the end of the film. How? Strong captures him, and using the most tired cliché possible, begins to explain in detail his past, who he is and what he plans to do with Mars instead of just killing him. Of course, John Carter manages to escape in time — but it gets even worse. **SPOILERS BEGIN** Beholden to give Disney a franchise, and seemingly lacking in any imagination, the screenwriters allow Mark Strong to evade death in the final moments of the movie, not only completely deflating the ending, but also rendering pretty much everything that happened in the preceeding two hours essentially pointless.**SPOILERS END** “John Carter” winds up being a movie about a man who goes to Mars to stop a wedding and kiss a woman he barely tolerated for half the movie, all while ensuring that the barn door is left wide open for a sequel, even if it means severely compromising the conclusion.
And even the usually imaginative Andrew Stanton seems adrift in “John Carter.” The director, who with his Pixar films “A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo” and especially “Wall-E” showed a deft, energetic hand at creating truly memorable, inventive sequences, seems completely flummoxed with having to do the same thing with CGI and actual humans. Tentpoles these days usually have at least one sizzle setpiece — think the Burj Khalifa sequence in ‘Ghost Protocol‘ or the skydiving section or office tower collapse in ‘Dark Of The Moon‘ — that really allows the director to show off his chops, and on the studio side, creates a segment people want to tell their friends about. “John Carter” has none. In fact, the action is disappointingly anonymous, with the mostly brief sequences playing out as blandly staged battles between masses of people, with choreography staying far enough on this side of coherent to at least keep it mostly straight as to what is going on, but hardly spurs further interest.
And it’s not like there wasn’t plenty of opportunity, but Stanton shorthands the most obvious moments where there could have been a place for some inventive play, while the sequences that are there are as bland and shortlived as they are memorable. As part of the finale, the Tharks — who have spent the whole movie saying that they don’t fly — throw caution to the wind and comandeer space ships. Do we get a fun, thrilling look at this race of aliens heading into a battle for their planet, doing something they’ve never done before? Nope, we do a quick cut to crash landing when they arrive to help John Carter. And even earlier in the film, Dejah’s flight from home to avoid being married is (mostly) explained, rather than shown.
Watching the film, you do get a sense that the PG-13 film was committee-d to death. Tonally, “John Carter” is all over the map. While the action does live up to its rating for the most part, Stanton never can settle if he wants the kills to be cartoonish or realistically felt. In one chilling sequence of the film, we see bodies in the aftermath of a battle being stacked up, but most of the rest of the time, aliens are playfully seen being thrown and strewn all over the screen, with John Carter acting more like the video game style action hero Disney will want boys to buy the toy for. And this imbalance between a more serious tone and one more broadly appealing, is found in the disjointed comedic relief, with a running gag that has John Carter being called “Virginia” (where he’s from) by the Tharks for much of the pic and in the character of Dejah, who starts off as warrior princess but winds up as a damsel in distress. And this perhaps goes back to the screenwriting (and general Disney routine) of being somewhat unable to write for women. In fact, “John Carter” is mostly a sausage party with only one other female character (a Thark at that) who ultimately has no bearing on the plot (she’s largely a Macguffin that gets us to the white ape battle that has been a big part of the marketing campaign). And it should be noted here that Taylor Kitsch as a leading man is perfectly fine — he’s got presence, charm and is ruggedly handsome in the way the role requires — but he, along with the rest of the cast, are simply let down by the material.
“John Carter” takes big aim at being a grand sci-fi adventure, a journey for our hero in a strange, alien land. But with a lack of motive (or a forever shifting one, that settles on the most dull option possible), a cheapshot ending that sells out the audience on a satisfying conclusion all in the name of serving up a sequel, Andrew Stanton’s film never feels like more than just a prelude. And a pretty tedious one at that. Unfocused and edgeless, “John Carter” never finds an orbit, but instead passes in front of your eyes like a shooting star, illuminating all too briefly what could have been, before what’s actually there is all you’re left with. [D]