Edgar Rice Burroughs created a rich world with his books focused on Barsoom (“Mars” to you and me) and John Carter. It is a world which Andrew Stanton has attempted to bring to life in this year’s John Carter. Burroughs wrote 11 different novels based on Barsoom, which makes Stanton’s task here not the easiest – even without the need to tell all the tales, Stanton still must create a full world for Carter and the other inhabitants of Barsoom, a world in which those other stories could, eventually take place.
It is an ambitious project and credit is certainly due Stanton for finally getting a John Carter movie made (it is something that various people in Hollywood have attempted for years). However, Stanton’s attempt is almost completely unsuccessful. John Carter has a twisted, murky (at best) plot as well as wooden characters and CGI work which isn’t always up to snuff. In short and being kind, John Carter isn’t a very good movie.
The film is Stanton’s first foray into live-action filmmaking as a director, the director having previously helmed Wall-E, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. Additionally, Stanton has story and/or screenplay credits on all of those films as well as the Toy Story movies, Monster’s Inc., and Finding Nemo. In short, the man has been a powerhouse at Pixar and, at least where animation is concerned, has an astoundingly great track record.
I won’t suggest that John Carter fails because Stanton was working outside of his comfort zone; others have certainly made the switch and I would hate to see Stanton limited in future endeavors based on such an assertion. Even successful, creative, talented, individuals have off outings, and this is certainly an off outing.
Things go badly with John Carter right from the outset. The majority of the story is horrifically convoluted when it comes to the different races/nationalities/species, and laid on top of that is a frame story which features Carter’s nephew reading a book left to him by Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Then, once inside the frame, the film doesn’t even jump straight to Barsoom, it spends a goodly long time with Carter getting taken in by soldiers and attempting to escape before he ever gets to Mars.
Once we do arrive on Mars we’re given a whole bunch of different groups of people (I’m using ‘people’ here as a catch-all for intelligent entities with the ability to speak and form into societies). There aren’t simply four (five with Carter) main groups, there are then factions and subgroups and we’re whipped around and around and around again as Carter goes from being friends to enemies to friends and back and forth with the different groups and subgroups so many times that it all becomes vaguely irrelevant. There is more than one good guy, more than one bad guy, good guys mistaken for bad guys, etc. It goes on and on without ever establishing any real, deep, characters.
The worst of the offenders in the shallow character department is Sab Than (Dominic West), who is certainly the worst of his group of baddies, but maybe not the worst of all the baddies. West, who great on The Wire, is given absolutely nothing to do here but look at turns angry and befuddled. The film can’t possibly spend enough time with him to turn him into a full character because there are too many other people running about who need their moment on screen.
The only other person given remotely as much time in front of the camera as Kitsch is Lily Collins who plays Dejah Thoris. Thoris is a princess who is being forced to marry Than. Unfortunately, despite the amount of time she is given on screen, her character never manages to break out of any sort of smart-princess-who-can-take-care-of-themselves-except-for-when-they-need-help mold. She is, in short, Jasmine to Carter’s Aladdin (at least with the Disney version of Aladdin).
As it goes, the main plot has something to do with Than’s people not getting along with Thoris’ people and the green Martians with four arms, but don’t like anyone including each other. Puppetmasters exist too, as does the titular John Carter, but after watching the movie, one wonders if a cleaner, deeper, tale couldn’t have been told if they had eliminated Carter from it entirely.
I am relatively convinced that devotees of the written Carter stories will find themselves displeased with my not understanding the deep machinations involved in the various group dynamics. However, I would point out that the film that is attempting to stand on its own and must be judged on whether or not it does so. John Carter does not. Is it likely that readers of the novels are able to pick apart that much more of what is going on? Almost without a doubt, but that’s not the point of the film.
Sadly, even the Blu-ray release of the movie is unspectacular. John Carter features a horrific blue-and-orange color scheme, and even when the colors pop on screen (and they do), one wonders exactly where the tanning beds on Mars might reside or if the sun simply makes the humanoid people orange. The level of detail is certainly excellent (the detail apparent various characters’ tattoos is impressive, and even in dark scenes (usually lit with an eerie blue or orange light) ample detail is present. Some of the green screen work (most noticeably when Carter is flying) looks downright poor in the release (though this may simply be the work and not the release). The DTS-HD 7.1 MA soundtrack is full and rich and lush, making mars come alive. However, the music and sound effects are far too loud in comparison to the dialogue, making scenes with musical stings meant to be amusing rather terrifying due to their suddenness. It could be suggested that the dialogue is kept to such a low volume because so little of it makes sense, but that seems a poor excuse.
In terms of special features, in 2D Blu-ray John Carter comes in a two-disc set (the second disc featuring a DVD copy) with access to Disney’s “Second Screen” (the ability to watch the movie on your TV and get insider info on a computer or tablet), deleted scenes, bloopers, and a commentary track. There are also two behind the scenes pieces, one focusing on a day in the life of the production and another on how Burroughs’ work finally made it to the big screen (including a discussion of failed past attempts). Both of these featurettes are nominally interesting, although not wholly enlightening. The look at a day of production gives a good feel for how a film is actually made although it may overlook some of the monotony and dullness involved.
It is wholly possible that this version of Barsoom could be expanded into a franchise with a number of big screen adventures. Or, more accurately, the world which Stanton has brought to the screen feels as though it is a place which has a whole lot more to offer than what we are given. In that respect, Stanton has been successful – Burroughs created a large world and Stanton’s world feels exceptionally large, with plenty of nooks and crannies full of characters and stories. It could very well be that many of those stories within Stanton’s creation are worth telling and worth hearing, this one, however, is not. With luck, the film will eventually see the same cult status held by 1980’s Flash Gordon. But, even lovers of that film won’t necessarily enjoy themselves here.