Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Dominic West, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Ciaran Hinds
RunTime: 1 hr 53 mins
Released By: Walt Disney Motion Pictures
Rating: PG13 (Battle Sequences)
Official Website: http://disney.go.com/johncarter/?cmp=wdsmp_jcm_url_johncarterarrives
Opening Day: 8 March 2012
Synopsis: "From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes "John Carter"-a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). "John Carter" is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
Why the venerable Disney would spend over US$250mil of their good money on a science-fiction action adventure set mostly on the Red Planet and around a protagonist with a name as nondescript as ‘John Carter’ was baffling right from the start, and remains an enigma by the end of this good-not-great movie. Indeed, a lot rides on a movie with such a hefty price tag, but given the successful transition that fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird made into live-action features with last fall’s ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, you might think that Andrew Stanton- the man behind ‘Wall E’ and ‘Finding Nemo’- could also make a similarly triumphant leap.
Alas, this big-budget adaptation of the first book- ‘Princess of Mars’- of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-volume ‘Barsoom’ series will likely fulfil only the most modest of expectations- and if it’s ‘Avatar’ that you think it may be, then you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Like any origin story for a franchise, ‘John Carter’ carries both the promise of an exciting new vision (think ‘Batman Begins’ or ‘Captain America’) and the burden of setting things up for future instalments. Not Stanton nor his two other screenwriters, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, however manage to unshackle the movie from the latter bugbear, so much so that their film never quite lives up to its potential.
And yes, there is certainly promise in the story of a Confederate veteran of the American civil war who goes searching for gold in the Arizona desert and ends up marooned on Mars right in the middle of an impending war. John Carter is this man, whose mode of interplanetary transport is a silver medallion he finds in the hands of a Holy Thern he accidentally kills in a cave on Earth. Once on Mars, John meets a nomadic tribe of Green Martians known as the Tharks led by the unusually empathetic Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). The difference in the gravitational pull between Earth and Mars results in his ability to leap great distances, and Tars spares his life in the hope of learning his secret.
Meanwhile, the two Red Martian cities of Helium and Zodanga are at the brink of a war that could change the fate of Mars forever. The latter’s leader, Sab Than (Dominic West), has a secret weapon bestowed by the Holy Therns, and to save the lives of his citizens, Helium’s leader Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) promises Sab Than his daughter’s hand in marriage. Dejah’s (Lynn Collins) pleas against her arranged marriage however fall on deaf ears, and her escape from Sab Than and his army ends fortuitously with a chance meeting with John. So as formula would dictate, John and Dejah will fall in love while saving the inhabitants of Helium and consequently the entire Barsoom planet.
Well if it isn’t ‘Avatar’ all over again, you say? The answer is both yes and no. Sure, like ‘Avatar’s’ Jake Sully, John Carter is the outsider who ends up being the unlikely hero saving a civilisation from annihilation after landing on an alien planet (though Pandora is probably more alien to most than Mars)- and while we’re at it, we might as well also mention that John also gets to learn to pilot a winged machine known as a ‘flier’ which will surely bring to mind a similar and so much more memorable sequence in ‘Avatar’. But unlike Jake, John plays the archetype of the reluctant hero that up until two-thirds of the movie had no intention of saving anyone- save for getting back to Earth and his cave of riches. Does that make John a more interesting character than Jake?
Unfortunately not- in fact, John remains quite one-dimensional despite a solid lead performance from Taylor Kitsch thanks to unfocused storytelling. Juggling a multitude of characters and just as many separate subplots with the Tharks, Zodangas, Therns and Heliums, Stanton shortchanges his audience’s desire to understand John’s transformation from selfish to selfless, and perhaps to an even greater extent the romance between John and Dejah that is supposedly the reason for his change of heart. Stanton’s attempt to give each of these Martian tribes enough screen time also backfires- so much so that significant supporting players like Sab Than, Tardos Mos and the key villain Matai Shang (Mark Strong) are little more than stock characters.
If ‘John Carter’ is weak on story, it is only marginally better in its action. Any hope for a thrilling mid-air battle between the fliers from Helium and Zodanga at the beginning is quickly dashed when it is over far too soon- and the same can be said of the other equally unremarkable action sequences. Granted that Stanton certainly lacks James Cameron’s experience behind the camera, but that’s scant excuse for the lack of build-up or excitement in the ostensible money-shots. Yes, while there is certainly scale in the sheer number of humans or aliens fighting on screen, these battle scenes are shot and edited with little continuity and fail to keep their audience engaged in the unfolding mayhem.
And that’s just another way in which the film wastes the potential of its actors. Kitsch is a much more compelling leading man than Avatar’s Sam Worthington, but his physicality and his emotional depth are wasted in a movie that botches both the action and the drama. Lynn Collins makes a suitably feisty warrior princess, though there are too few moments in the film to allow Kitsch’s and Collins’ chemistry to shine through. Pity the ensemble supporting cast too- especially West, Hinds and Strong- whose characters are so thinly drawn that they are almost inconsequential.
Yet despite its flaws, we must caveat that ‘John Carter’ isn’t the disaster some pundits have predicted it to be. Those unfamiliar with Burroughs’ story will find the rich mythology intriguing- though whether the film satisfies your sense of curiosity at the end is another matter. Stanton has also made this family-friendly, so younger kids will be distracted by the gorgeous production design as well as John’s irresistibly cute pet beast Woola. But considering the budget and the talent involved, the fact that it is only a middling action-adventure is ultimately disappointing. After all, it says a lot when your impression of John Carter is just as indifferent before and after two hours of spectacle.
(Scattershot storytelling, weak characterisation and unremarkable action sequences render this big-budget adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sci-fi series a middling action adventure good only for the most modest of expectations)
Review by Gabriel Chong