Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Date: March 9, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
Box Office: $TBD
Walt Disney Pictures.
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chambon; based on the book “The Princess Of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
|“Fate has brought you here John…” – Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins)
I like ice cream. I like ice cream a lot. I may even have two scoops of ice cream on occasion, with lots of toppings. And when I indulge this particular vice and reach that inevitable stop-or-swerve decision as to whether or not I should or should not have just a little bit more ice cream, I inevitably make the wrong decision and end up with a bellyache, want to be left alone for awhile, and desire a nap.
All of this to say – I endured the exact same experience watching John Carter, 2-time Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton’s (Pixar’s Wall-E and Finding Nemo)first foray into live action filmmaking. For awhile, the film is curious and inviting, tastes good and satisfies. Unfortunately, as you continue to sample and taste the offerings, the things you like become burdensome, the enjoyment turns to something more laborious, and the eventual end result is a film that settles into your belly like a stone, does not digest all that well, and becomes an experience that starts with pleasure and enjoyment and ends with regret and perhaps even remorse.
Squandered is a word which I think best describes another in a long line of hopeful Disney franchises. And yet, despite the squandered opportunities to make John Carter something epic and distinctly memorable, there are some intriguing elements to the story that work and work well. The story of John Carter dates back 100 years, as the character first surfaced in famed science-fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy, 11-book series “Barsoom.” “Barsoom” is the name of a reinvented vision of Mars and Burroughs took his initial serialized tales of events and characters and fashioned them into a series of novels which spanned more than 4 decades. The character of John Carter was front and center for many of the “Barsoom” saga’s most memorable stories and Disney positioned the big-budget science-fiction epic adaptation for the centennial of the titular character’s first ever appearance.
Essentially, John Carter the film (formerly titled John Carter Of Mars), tells a story that does indeed feel as if it was written from a era and a time period gone by. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Civil War Confederacy soldier who, after hiding out from Apache Indians while searching for a mysterious cave of gold, is transported to Mars after an encounter with a strange man. Once he surfaces on Mars, and naturally we know where John is before he does, John is able to determine that his physical prowess on Earth will offer him unique abilities on Mars. These abilities are amplified when his extraordinary jumping abilities are seen and discovered by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), a Barsoomian soldier, who is taken and intrigued by his newfound discovery.
The Tharks are just one race of beings on Barsoom and John Carter quickly finds himself immersed in conflicts all over the planet. The Heliumites are essentially the enemy of the Tharks and are human, as opposed to being, well…Tharkian (checking for proper terminology…). Led by Tardos (Ciaran Hinds), the king of the Heliumites, Carter quickly meets, rescues, and curries the favor of Helium princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Dejah Thoris, who is notably absent of clothing in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series, is decidedly clothed a fair amount here, and after showing off her incredible fighting talents, becomes the requisite love interest for John as he acclimates and navigates through the Barsoomian tensions he has come to find himself entrenched in.
And there is more. We have a rogue element known as Holy Therns and as entertaining and intriguing as this all initially is, John Carter succumbs to a convoluted stew of a half-dozen science-fiction films we have seen before and goofy, stilted dialogue that may be impassioned when recited by a game set of actors, but serves no real identifiable purpose. At times, John Carter suffers from the worst type of screenwriting – where characters devolve into lengthy conversations that sound important but ultimately say nothing. For long stretches of time, John Carter exhausts itself trying to lay out the entire Barsoomian landscape and conflicts that steer away from the simple premise of whether John Carter will get home, restore peace, and love or not love the hot Princess. Why these types of films have to be so convoluted and meandering, I will never understand.
At the end of the day, John Carter is made by Disney, and while it is rated PG-13, efforts to temper down the more adult-oriented themes and writings found in the Burroughs source material have steered this project towards at least attempting to score a more family-oriented demographic. Surprisingly, for an Andrew Stanton film, John Carter possesses only a few scant moments of genuine humor and/or earnestness. Those moments of levity are much needed and welcomed because John Carter becomes so enamored with its own Barsoomian/Martian civil war storyline, and so lost within its own universe, that it never bothers to make thoughtful and intriguing connections.
Specifically, I find an obvious connection missed with John Carter himself. Here is a soldier, caught in a new and disconcerting world, on the verge of a Civil War after fighting in one back home. Certainly parallels could have been drawn between Carter’s Confederate experience and the conflicts between Heliumites, Therns, and Tharks. But never mind that, let’s have Tars Tarkas continue to call John Carter, “Virginia”, and the alien-puppy thing be cute a dozen more times. Meanwhile, I will be the guy wondering who this is made for and why and whether or not I should care about John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), interjected as a character who is inheriting the Carter Estate when he is presumed dead, and whether or not any of this is going to come together in a cohesive manner.
Ultimately, John Carter is not a bad film, just a mishandled one. The visual effects are, at times, impressive and underwhelming. The screenplay and below-the-line work in sound design and cinematography, for example, gravitate between innovation and cliché. The score by Michael Giacchino is terrific during the film and instantly forgettable the moment you leave the theater. John Carter is a walking contradiction, taking one step forward and a couple of steps back, only to (literally) leap forward and then retreat back once again. John Carter may feature a man inexplicably displaced from his home, trying to survive in and around a confusing new world he never knew existed. I simply wonder why we have to endure that as well?
Although it has a Disney stamp, this is not for young kids. The 137 minute running time, the reliance on lots of dialogue, the lack of a cohesive narrative, and some intense fighting sequences will likely not be enough of a hook to keep them entertained.
A schizophrenic film that skirts over important details and focuses on non-important ones. Is it aiming for kids and families with winning humor and a cute alien puppy-like creature, or is it aiming for teens and older adults with the action, dialogue, and revealing costuming of Princess Dejah Thoris. This film is all over the map and at times, can be work to get from one thing to the next.
Most disappointingly, John Carter does a whole lot to impress and becomes the latest cinematic equivalent of “Meh.” The film is not bad or good, strong or weak, it just is wildly imbalanced and will be liked or disliked depending on your preconceived notions about what you are expecting to see.