When you spend a whopping $250 million on a blockbuster sci-fi action movie, it’s bound to at least look the part. But you need more than pools of money to make a movie of that kind work.
Directed by Andrew Stanton—making his live-action feature film debut after directing such revered Pixar films as Finding Nemo and WALL-E—John Carter is based on the almost 100-year-old Barsoom series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically the first installment “A Princess of Mars.” Stanton is reportedly a lifelong fan of the stories, and so the chance to direct the first film version must have been beyond exciting. And that love for the material inevitably comes across within the film itself.
However, while it may work for fans of the stories who know all the ins and outs of the characters, the array of diverse creatures and the general world the author set up almost a century ago, it hasn’t really been developed into an entirely cohesive spectacle for those none-the-wiser to truly appreciate.
The film follows the titular John Carter, a Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported one day to the planet Barsoom (that’s Mars to us), where he discovers 12-foot tall inhabitants known as Tharks. He is taken prisoner by them but soon after escaping he crosses paths with a Princess in need of his help to save her city.
Like I said, a quarter of a billion dollars—let me say that again, a quarter of a billion dollars—was spent on the movie and that shows on-screen. Everything looks fantastic, particularly the creatures that inhabit this world that’s alien—pun intended—to our eponymous hero. Speaking of which, while there is a sense that this guy is a hero you can root for, he’s never really brought to life by the main actor in a way that’s all that engaging or involving. Taylor Kitsch—who was terrible as Gambit in the X-Men spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine—is very bland and lacks the charisma to carry the role (although I have heard good things about his performance in the TV show Friday Night Lights).
He is thankfully surrounded by an impressive cast who can fill in the gaps, notably Mark Strong (who seems to be popping up in everything these days) as one of the mythical Thern, Ciarán Hinds as the Princess’ strict father, and Willem Dafoe in CGI form as one of the prideful, resilient Tharks.
The movie as a whole has a crippling pacing problem. One minute it will be going at breakneck pace with things whizzing by, complicated character and place names being thrown around, and massive set pieces that are hit and miss as far as being entertaining goes. Then the next minute the film has ground to a halt and it becomes plodding and monotonous before we are once again whisked off to the next big action sequence. This mishandling of the pace makes for an uneven, at times even frustrating, experience.
John Carter is by no means a waste of time; it’s passably fair and delivers enough spectacle and grandiose action to satisfy blockbuster fans. But it’s a case where all the ideas at the core, big and small, seem much more interesting on their own than they do in the execution. That’s obviously a testament to the original author whose work has been translated obviously with love but a lack of cohesiveness to keep its wild, crazy ideas in check.
This was obviously made with eyes on turning it into a franchise. A lack of a big name star in the lead and a bonkers, confused, and rather inaccessible mythology to a mainstream audience might not allow for a runaway success. But if they do make more, there is definitely room improvement; the world has been set-up well, it’s the execution of what inhabits it that needs improvement.