starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker
written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon
directed by: Andrew Stanton
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
There is much about John Carter that feels familiar to the point of redundancy, which is apparently due in large part to the fact that the source novel (A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs) is nearly a hundred years old, and has been hugely influential on big stuff like Star Wars and Avatar. So while uninformed audiences (such as myself) might see just another sci-fi epic about an unlikely rogue hero battling to save a feisty princess against an otherworldly backdrop, aficionados see the original sci-fi epic finally making its screen debut. But does it really matter what came first? Historical perspective on its text aside, John Carter still has to stand on its own as an aspiring blockbuster. As such, it is above average, but not great.
Tim Riggins, err, Taylor Kitsch stars as the titular character, a shit-kicking lone wolf Civil War vet. When Carter runs afoul of the law out West, he winds up in the clutches of Sheriff Powell (Bryan Cranston). Oh, but wait, that’s not actually where it starts. The larger context of the story takes place in old-timey New York City, where Carter has died suddenly and his nephew has been sent to sort through his things. The nephew discovers a journal in which Carter recites his long, strange saga. And THEN it flashes back the Old West, but not without further flashbacks to explain what happened to Carter before he left his Virginia home. By the time you get to the end of this rather long film (137 minutes and feeling like every second of it), you will think back on these segments as though they were another movie entirely.
Anyway. Through very bizarre circumstances involving mysterious men and talismans in a cave or some such thing, Carter somehow finds himself on Mars. Hello, Mars! Carter has no clue where he is, and is quite flummoxed when he discovers that the gravitational situation has changed considerably. At first he can barely take a step without flying forward onto his face, which gradually gives way to giant Crouching Tiger leaps once he gets his Mars mojo going. But then he meets the Martians. Hello, Martians! Not that they call themselves that. It’s probably a faux pas that I’m even saying it. And while there is initially quite a language barrier between Carter and the Martians, he eventually overcomes it by listening to some kind of inner voice? That makes everything they say sound like English? I don’t know. Frankly, the movie totally cops out on the gravity thing and the language barrier thing. Why even acknowledge them if you’re going to resolve them a minute later? What is this, a True Blood cliffhanger?
So yeah, he’s on Mars, where apparently there is all kinds of strife. And if you’re hoping I’ll be able to explain any of it, you’ve come to the wrong review. This is one of those movies that should really supply a fucking glossary to the audience. Not only does it vividly depict an entirely fictional Martian world, but it divides its inhabitants into different sects and cities and societies and species, each with its own made-up name and made-up language, and politics are involved, and one city is oppressing another by sitting on it or something, and oh brother. Understandably, Carter looks around at all of this and is like, “Peace out.”
But since this is a movie about rejecting individualism and awaking to a more collective sense of shared responsibility (or taking up a cause, regardless of how little it has to do with you), he is eventually browbeaten into agreeing to help the oppressed. Also on the rescue agenda is a feisty princess, Dejah (Lynn Collins), who has become betrothed to the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West of The Wire, completing the film’s Holy Trinity of White People Television with Friday Night Lights‘ Kitsch and Breaking Bad‘s Cranston; sadly, no Mad Men actors are featured).
Speaking of Kitsch, much has been made of Disney taking such a big-budget gamble on an untested leading man. Well yeah, no shit, they probably couldn’t afford a bigger name after already doling out $250 million for the rest of this spectacle. But Kitsch is actually quite good in the role, a total natural. With his charmingly low-key sense of humor and moments of vein-popping intensity, Kitsch could be the next Brad Pitt. And of course, his looks don’t hurt. Actually, let me revise that: his looks hurt me. Personally. Why does he look like that? How? Argh. At least he spends 75% of his screen time blasting his nips. There’s a moment when you think they’ll be covered up by a breastplate, but nope, still out there.
Similarly to Thor, John Carter expects the audience to share in its borderline-academic enthusiasm for the minutiae of its mythology. It has an almost novelistic feel to it, presumably due to the fact that acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon co-wrote it (his first screenplay credit). But sadly, what it has in extensive details and subplots, it lacks in excitement and innovation. This is really a shame, as John Carter marks the live-action directing debut of two-time Oscar-winning Pixar god Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). And coming on the heels of his fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird’s home-run with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, expectations were high. Stanton’s film is adequate, and even has a few genuinely powerful moments in which you’re fleetingly reminded of what magic Stanton is capable. But overall, it just doesn’t rise to the occasion.
John Carter opens nationwide today.