"When I saw you, I believed it was a sign... that something new can come into this world."
2012's John Carter was a long time coming. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' story A Princess of Mars which was first published in 1912, official development for a John Carter motion picture has started and stopped since 1931. But apparently eight decades was not enough time to do the project justice, as the finished movie is misguided and soulless. It was almost impossible to ignore all of the bad press surrounding John Carter - Disney blew well north of $350 million on it (including marketing), leading to speculation that the studio had an expensive box office bomb on their hands. Hell, the deck was so overwhelmingly stacked against the film (especially with its inexperienced director and lack of big stars) that this reviewer hoped it would be a success out of sheer pity. Yet, John Carter is desperately underwhelming; rather than an absorbing fantasy adventure, it feels like a mash-up of Avatar, the Star Wars series, Gladiator and other such films which, ironically, were actually inspired by Burroughs' original text.
In Arizona, former Civil War captain John Carter (Kitsch) has become a notorious criminal. When arrested, Carter soon escapes with guards in hot pursuit, and accidentally stumbles upon a sacred cave potentially loaded with riches. Inside, an encounter with a holy Martian (known as a Thern) results in Carter being transported to the planet Mars, which is called Barsoom by the locals. Finding that the planet's weak gravitational pull gives him superhuman abilities, Carter begins wandering the planet, eventually happening upon a race of creatures known as the Tharks. From there, Carter becomes entangled in a conflict over dwindling resources between two cities: Helium and Zodanga. Drawn to Helium's princess, Dejah (Collins), Carter endeavours to work towards planetary peace.
When Burroughs wrote his original stories in the early 20th Century, outer space exploration was mere speculation, and nobody knew was Mars was truly like. Of course, now - one hundred years later - we know that Mars is desolate and lifeless, which automatically positions John Carter within the realm of the blatantly fantastical. Indeed, those expecting any plausibility will not find it here, as director Andrew Stanton and his co-writers (Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon) ill-advisably retained Burroughs' (inaccurate) Victorian-era view of the solar system, creating a huge logical obstacle that's difficult to overcome. It is, indeed, quite a cruel paradox. Ironically, too, because Burroughs' stories have been raided by countless filmmakers over the years (including James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg), none of the narrative ideas seem fresh anymore, making John Carter feel like a production long past its use-by date. Naturally, Hollywood has recycled old ideas time and time again and made them feel fresh, but this requires a deft touch that unfortunately eludes director Andrew Stanton.
The lifeless nature of John Carter is especially shocking since Stanton was responsible for Pixar hits like Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Whereas those movies had fun characters, tender humour and lots of humanity, John Carter lacks these qualities. This is most likely due to Stanton's inexperience, as this was his first time directing a live-action film and he tried to nail so many different genres (sci-fi, fantasy, action, adventure) that he never entirely succeeds at any of them. In other words, he bit off more than he could chew, which is further exemplified in the fact that the film underwent a month of reshoots in which most of the picture had to be shot again! It's a shame, too, because Pixar veteran Brad Bird made an impressive live-action debut with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. What's also ironic is that John Carter looks more cartoonish than any of Stanton's Pixar movies. The CGI is a mixed bag (creatures look impressive but the compositing is skewiff and green screening looks phoney), and the overabundance of digital imagery serves to make it look like the Star Wars prequels. The terrible marketing for the film tried to paint is as the Gladiator of the fantasy genre in which the titular character faces off against monsters in an arena, but this heavily plugged scene constitutes about 5 minutes of the film's mammoth 130-minute running time.
As a consequence of everything, the throwaway action scenes can only conjure up a very mild sense of excitement, no intrigue is generated through the dreary exposition, and it's difficult to care about the superficial characters. Critically, John Carter is poorly-paced - too many scenes waste time over-explaining plot elements which don't really matter, neglecting meaty character development and creating tedious stretches between the action. With Disney having thrown $250 million at the screen, John Carter is a surface-level experience which, despite handsome production values, never introduces human emotion and thus never pulls you in.
The reason why the dialogue is so flat is probably a combination of the subpar actors and Stanton's inexperience directing live-action films. As a result, the acting lacks sincerity, and there's no spark between Taylor Kitsch and love interest Lynn Collins. With Kitsch in the lead role here, John Carter is a sullen, bland empty cipher of a protagonist; a run-of-the-mill pretty boy with a good physique but zero charisma. Carter needed to be played by an actor with more flavour and sass. The character's boring nature is especially problematic since the film is named after him (why didn't Disney use more intriguing titles like A Princess of Mars or John Carter of Mars?). The film also boasts a number of notable actors like Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Dominic West and Bryan Cranston, but they make no impression amid the surplus of CGI and the lack of human feeling, though they at least seem to be trying (it isn't possible for Cranston to be bad in anything).
John Carter is not a terrible movie by any stretch, as there are several memorable images of widescreen wonder to behold from time to time. It's somewhat watchable, but most will ultimately find it too cold. Without solid leading actors, a stirring story or anything genuinely distinguishable, John Carter feels like just another CGI spectacle. We expected and deserved a lot more from this production. After all, if you're finally going to make a movie after 80 years of pre-production, shouldn't it be perfect?