Considered one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” opened readers’ imaginations to interplanetary heroism, romance, action, adventure, and more. From all accounts, it has the best elements of any great piece of pulp fiction. Almost 100 years after the novel’s release, the long-awaited film adaptation of this story exchanges pulp for stoicism and loses all of its fun in the process.
The biggest problem with Carter isn’t the poor acting, bad dialogue, or bland storytelling. It’s the tone with which director Andrew Stanton, who also co-wrote the screenplay, chose to bestow on the movie, and the way he (or Disney, the studio responsible) attempted to conform the film to hit every quadrant. John Carter was once called John Carter of Mars, a title much more evocative of the type of movie this should have aspired to: daring, charming, and a bit ridiculous, like an Errol Flynn space opera. But the studio decided that dropping the “of Mars” would get more females into the theater and avoid conjuring memories of their colossal 2011 financial failure Mars Needs Moms. This marketing ploy made very little sense to me, especially considering that they didn’t change the rest of their strategy to fit their perceived new goals; what I mean is, every commercial and TV spot aired featured nine foot tall aliens with four arms and Taylor Kitsch leaping around a red planet like a frog with ‘roid rage. Not exactly the best way to distance themselves from the Mars they so desperately wanted to leave behind in the title. And did you know that the film actually opens with Carter as a Confederate soldier on Earth during the Civil War and he’s suddenly transported to Mars? If you knew that, I bet you didn’t learn it from the trailers; again, focusing on that plot point would have been a nice way to shed that studio fear of Martian haze.
But let’s forget the advertising, shall we? A film should always be judged on its own, independently of what a marketing team decides is the best way to sell it. There have been plenty of terrible trailers for great movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lucky Number Slevin come to mind), so let’s leave the marketing in our collective rear-view and move back to the movie itself.
This is Andrew Stanton’s first live action feature film (he previously directed Finding Nemo and WALL*E for Pixar), and though the source material he’s working from came way before and absolutely inspired Star Wars, Avatar, and a lot of other sci-fi properties that we’re familiar with today, the burden falls on him as a director to give us something new with a $200 million dollar blockbuster. It’s his responsibility to recognize that we’ve seen action sequences like the ones written in “A Princess of Mars” before, and it’s up to him to do whatever it takes – even if that mean deviating slightly from the source material – to give audiences something that, if it doesn’t take our breath away, at the very least provides an emotional connection to the characters and perhaps some coherent action while avoiding the most asinine of cliches. Unfortunately, we don’t get any of those things in John Carter.
What we do get, instead of pulpy entertainment, is a super serious narrative of the reluctant hero with a past. It’s more Batman Begins than Flash Gordon. There’s a scene in which Carter is on the run from a horde of evil aliens, and he stops and turns to face them. Intercut with flashbacks of his dead wife, Carter leaps into the middle of hundreds of enemies, stands in one place, and flails his sword wildly, slashing anything in his path and bellowing in slow motion while Michael Giacchino’s score demands we take this as a somber moment. Carter just stands there, feet planted, bodies piling up around him as the creatures stupidly attack him one at a time and continue to jump at a man who has slaughtered hundreds of their friends in front of them with very little effort. It’s blockbuster stupidity at its most depressing, removing the potential fun from the story and replacing it with self-serious moments that earned unintentional laughter in my theater.
The story is ripe for adventure in all the right places, but never lives up to its thrilling potential. A soldier is mysteriously transported to Mars (called Barsoom by the natives), basically gaining superpowers as soon as he arrives; because of the differences in gravity, he can leap hundreds of feet at a time and has super strength. But the movie is wildly inconsistent with its rules, contradicting itself every few minutes and resulting in a muddled mess that has some passable effects, but no heart whatsoever. The soulless Taylor Kitsch brings little to the wayward warrior, delivering poorly written lines with no gusto. One minute he kills someone with a single blow, the next he’s struggling to pull a chain from a wall. There’s no continuity with the “powers,” and no danger involved with them, either. Carter barely bleeds throughout the whole film, a wimpier version of Han Solo who ironically inspired the creation of Han Solo. If you’re going to use that archetype, there’s gotta be something more going on underneath the surface (see: Sawyer, “LOST”).
Lynn Collins is gorgeous as Dejah Thoris, but she’s saddled with such a thankless character that it was hard to take her seriously. You may see the occasional supporter come out and defend her character as being badass, but try as the filmmakers might (and they didn’t try very hard), she’s still ultimately just a damsel in distress who relies on Carter to save her from being married to the bad guy. Mark Strong’s talent is totally wasted as the leader of some sort of galactic League of Shadows whose idea of killing time involves wandering from planet to planet, building them up, and orchestrating their downfalls from within. This group’s motivations were never clearly defined, and for a band of eternal creatures who supposedly organize the death of planets all the time, they’re really bad at it. Willem Dafoe yammers his way through a motion-captured performance as a character so blase I could barely pay attention to what he was saying without falling asleep.
The coolest part of the movie is its ending, which has a neat little twist I’ll admit I didn’t see coming. But that’s the only positive thing I can say about the script, which is otherwise full of eye-rolling moments, dumbed-down dialogue, and idiotic one-liners played for the broadest possible laughs. (Soon after Carter wakes up on Barsoom, he yells, “Where on Earth am I?!” He later introduces himsefl to Dafoe’s alien as “John Carter from Virginia,” and for the rest of the movie, they call him “Virginia.” See what I mean?) Michael Giacchino’s score takes its cues from the love theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while some of the special effects were cool (cities, ships, some design elements), the weight of Carter jumping around never felt right. None of the storylines hit me on an emotional level, and I was never invested in what happened to anyone. There are two warring nations on Barsoom, and they live in seemingly the only two cities on the entire planet. Couldn’t they just draw a line down the middle and each take half?
I could go on about the nonsensical elements of this movie (why do inhabitants of Barsoom fly around on spaceships and shoot laser beams at each other, yet still use metal swords for close combat fighting?), but I’ll digress and end by saying that for me, this movie is a complete failure. The only thing that’s epic about John Carter is how much of a disaster it is. Until next time…