Andrew Stanton’s John Carter carries a germ of greatness. It’s a grand fantasy adventure and an elaborate interplanetary yarn that deliberately recalls Star Wars. It’s a poignant story, told with subtlety and even hints of grace, about a Confederate soldier in search of a cause he can actually be proud to fight for. Stanton, trained in the halls of Pixar Studios, has a sense of humor and rhythm; his CG action scenes feel painstakingly constructed and thought-through, not like an onslaught of noisy effects. It should have been a highlight of the spring; perhaps of the year.
It isn’t quite, and that’s sad. The problem is a murkiness that plagues both John Carter‘s dusty 3D visuals and the details of its mythology. The film peddles a lot of ideas it can’t quite sell; its worldbuilding details seem piled on top of each other rather than arranged in such a way as to suggest something greater than is shown. And a day later, it plays in my mind’s eye as a hazy brown blob, not as the vivid, colorful adventure it so clearly wants to be.
Carter, played by chiseled Friday Night Lights heartthrob Taylor Kitsch, is transported to Mars — or, as it is known to its unexpectedly numerous inhabitants, Barsoom — after stumbling into a mysterious cave while hunting for gold in the Utah desert. So far so good (and it’s preceded by a lively and intriguing prologue featuring former Spy Kid Daryl Sabara as Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs). Upon arrival in Barsoom — endlessly beige and dusty — he finds that, thanks to the lighter gravity, he can leap way in the air, bouncing around like a tennis ball. He is promptly captured by a species of betusked, four-armed locals who, misunderstanding his English introduction, take to calling him Virginia. (I never quite got tired of that joke.) The weird, 12-foot-tall beasties have some sort of civil strife going — battles to the death and everything — and Carter, of course, finds himself smack in the middle of it.
Okay. But then it also turns out that there are two battling cities of humanoids on Barsoom, one called Helium and another called Zedenga, and for some reason the chief (or “Jeddak”) of Zodanga, played by Dominic West, has been given a powerful destructive tool by some godlike robed creatures called Tharks and told to threaten Helium with destruction unless Helium’s princess, Dejah (Lynn Collins) agrees to take his hand in marriage. And Dejah of course will have none of this so she runs away, is chased, and rescued by Carter in a daring feat of leaping. And then they go off together and Carter has to decide whether he will fight to protect Helium or try to get back to Earth. And there’s still intrigue with the four-armed creatures he met originally, too; their leader’s daughter and her loyal Barsoomian dog follow Carter around like C3PO and R2D2, only fleshier.
You get the idea. John Carter is delirious with elaborate mythology and jargon — the dialogue starts to sound like gibberish after a while. But there’s not a ton of conviction behind it; none of it seems real, or compellingly unreal. They’re just words. We never see any actual people in these cities going about their lives. It’s not clear what’s at risk, beyond the fact that — we’re told — the bad guys are “mindless brutes.” Princess Dejah does a lot of pleading and begging (and she’s the love interest, of course), but we don’t really believe it, and the movie doesn’t seem to much care. John Carter tosses out a great deal of story, but very little of it sticks. And the 3D filter renders the monochromatic color palette drab and ugly; the film is not much fun to look at, which is a serious problem for purported eye candy.
Still, Stanton is an interesting enough director to make John Carter worthwhile. I liked the early scenes in the wild west, which have a sense of humor and a brisk pace. Stanton intercuts a fight scene on Barsoom with a poignant flashback from the protagonist’s past; it’s the climax of an uncommonly thoughtful character arc. The Earthbound prologue and epilogue have an urgency that’s missing from the jumbled, exposition-heavy midsection. There are more than a few moments that hint at the fantasy classic this might have been. See it in 2D.
— Eugene Novikov