Film Review: John Carter

Civil War veteran John Carter finds himself in another war when he is transported to Mars. Big-budget adaptation of a pulp favorite delivers epic scale and effects, but skimps on entertainment.

Based on works by pulp king Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter introduces to the screen a Tarzan-like hunk who fights his way across two planets to rescue a henna-hued princess. Too reminiscent of previous films to impress older viewers, and too lightweight to dazzle fantasy fans, the film faces an uphill battle to earn back its reputed $250 million budget.
Making his live-action feature debut, director Andrew Stanton opens John Carter on Mars (or "Barsoom" in native parlance), where two nations are fighting to the finish over the dying planet. Guided by evil Thern shapeshifters like Matai Shang (Mark Strong), Sab Than (Dominic West) and his soldiers try to defeat the kingdom of Helium, ruled by Jeddak (Ciarán Hinds). To save his people, Jeddak offers his beautiful daughter Dejah (Lynn Collins) in marriage.

Back on Earth, aspiring writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads through his uncle's diaries. In them, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate captain, explains how he found himself out West battling both Union soldiers and Apaches while prospecting for gold. Transported to Mars, he is enslaved by Tharks, four-armed giants who hate "white worms." Carter is a prize of sorts because the lower gravity on Mars has given him superhuman strength.

The war of the human-like Martians spills over onto Thark land, giving Carter the opportunity to save Dejah from Sab. Accompanied by the Thark Sola (Samantha Morton), they embark on a journey to rescue Helium from Thern efforts to destroy it. Along the way, Carter will be captured by Tharks, Therns and Martians; be forced to fight giant white apes; learn to fly; and confront his own morals and prejudices.

Stanton, who wrote the screenplay with Burroughs enthusiasts Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, takes all of the politics, skullduggery, sex and whirlwind escapes in the story very seriously—too seriously, in fact, given how purple, feverish and illogical Burroughs' writing was. So much of John Carter is spent laying groundwork that viewers will have to wait for a sequel to have any fun. And for someone whose reputation was built on such brilliantly focused movies as WALL-E, Stanton is weirdly off-target in several scenes here, notably during a long stretch in a Union prison.

Still, John Carter has enough stirring moments and impressive effects to thrill viewers unfamiliar with Avatar or Cowboys & Aliens, with which it shares a number of ideas and plot points. What the film doesn't have is a strong star in the lead. Taylor Kitsch has a great work ethic but no evident acting chops, unless scowling and muscle-flexing count. And since Carter is the only character in the story with any real background and development, that leaves a gaping hole at the center of a very expensive movie.

Disney executives have thrown the studio's marketing muscle behind John Carter, perhaps hoping that it will be perceived as too big to fail. It's too good a movie to dismiss outright, but not memorable enough to build a big fan base of repeat viewers. Unfortunately, when this much money's involved, no one can afford so-so results.