Before I attempt to tell you what John Carter is, let me rattle off a few things it isn’t.
It isn’t Avatar, which transported audiences to a distant, alien planet that pulsated with life, immersed us in color, and rarely stopped surprising us with its creatively visual palette. It isn’t J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, which raised the bar for contemporary sci-fi action by mastering the pace of an interplanetary mission while understanding how and when to escalate the threat level. Nor is John Carter the next Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which bled dry the corpse of an engaging premise and refilled it with ludicrous digital effects that were childish, even by summer-blockbuster standards. And finally, it isn’t Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
That last one might sound like I’m comparing apples to orangutan, but let me explain. Within a few months of each other, two animation giants have made the leap to live-action: Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles, made a natural transition to Tom Cruise’s M:I franchise, while WALL-E director Andrew Stanton continues to explore the galaxies with Carter. But while the vise-grip of tension that was Ghost Protocol proved Bird’s mastery of storytelling no matter the medium, the slack Carter suggests that Stanton bit off more than he could chew when adapting the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story to the big screen.
The character of John Carter first appeared in Burroughs' Barsoom series in 1912. As far back as 1931, filmmakers inspired by Burroughs' daring stories have dreamed of telling Carter’s tale in a movie. Names like Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen, John McTiernan and Robert Rodriguez tried – and failed – to breathe life into Barsoom, the native name given to Mars by its salamander-esque inhabitants.
The film’s lengthy, rocky journey through pre-production probably is more engaging than Stanton’s finished product, and could make for a riveting documentary somewhere down the road. Here and now, though, we get Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as the short-tempered Civil War veteran who, after a chance encounter with a guardian extraterrestrial, finds himself marooned on the desert surface of the Red Planet. Carter’s unique bone density gives him the extraordinary ability to defy gravity and leap for miles – a talent that piques the interest of Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), leader of the six-limbed, lizard-skinned Thark warriors who are caught up in a conflict between warring civilizations.
Ah, the jumping. It’s one of a handful of special effects in Stanton’s John Carter that just never looks right. Segments of John Carter look spectacular. Martian spaceships tower over congested battlefields, and Stanton places his camera at intimately unique angles to help ensure that we’re standing on the decks of those massive carriers or running through the arena when Carter dodges white ape creatures. But the jumping … it really looks unpolished and unforgivably bad. Instead of credible, it looks corny every time Kitsch relies on his leaping abilities to rescue the beautiful Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) – his love interest – or escape the clutches of the power-hungry Sab Than (Dominic West), arrogant Prince of Zodanga who is being manipulated by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the Holy Thern who are manipulating the conflicts on Mars because that’s what they’ve been doing for eons now and …
Are you still with me? Because most of this is relatively tough to follow in Stanton’s film. Those with a taste for sci-fi may embrace the Greek and Roman roots of Burroughs’ far-reaching text. When George Lucas claims that Star Wars wouldn’t exist without John Carter, you understand the reference and see the influence.
But Lucas knew not to force a cavalier, contrarian anti-hero like Han Solo as his lead character. Carter drops an indifferent protagonist – one who speaks in the clunky dialect of a stock action savior – into the middle of a galactic battle neither he (nor we) cares to invest much interest in. That makes the bulk of Carter a tough slog, despite some decent performances and the admirable introduction of a tough-as-nails action heroine in Collins. Arid, barren Barsoom is a dull environment for a sci-fi blockbuster, and the consequences of the conflicts happening on screen are small. John Carter just never pulled me in.
What shocks me most is Stanton’s apparent lack of command over a story that sprawls in various directions without saying much. This is a Pixar veteran whose credits include the Toy Story franchise, Finding Nemo and the flawless WALL-E. Could he not see that he lacked a firm grip on his film’s narrative? Maybe the script, which reportedly had been through countless revisions, needed a few more passes to streamline its mythology and solidify a more-compelling three-act structure? Perhaps the flawed effects needed more time in the lab? Because if you’re finally going to take John Carter off the shelf, blow inches of dust off the series and release it into theaters after nearly a century of waiting, don’t you want it to be perfect?