A Civil War veteran finds himself transported to Mars where he proceeds to involve himself in a planetary war. He becomes a warrior chief, falls in love with a princess, and goes on adventures. How the fuck can you possibly make that boring? Well, watch Disney’s John Carter and you’ll find out.
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and blessed with a strong supporting cast that includes Willem Dafoe and Mark Strong, John Carter labors under what might end up being the most convoluted, god-awful screenplay of any major action movie released this year. The movie’s two leads don’t help. Star Taylor Kitsch spends most of the movie doing his best Christian-Bale-passing-a-kidney-stone impression and Lynn Collins is little more than an attractive vessel for endless plot exposition.
Taking a step back for a moment, the John Carter of Mars saga by Edgar Rice Burroughs occupies roughly the same position in the science fiction world that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian occupies in the world of fantasy: namely that of a neglected, sometimes campy elder statesman of the genre. One hundred years has elapsed since the publication of the first John Carter story and, in the time since, major science fiction authors and filmmakers have been influenced and inspired by Burroughs’ work. Without John Carter, we probably wouldn’t have Star Wars or Avatar.
So the only surprising thing about this movie adaptation is that it took so long for someone to bring it to the big screen. The final product of decades of well publicized struggles is a polished looking film, but perhaps the filmmakers should have taken another few years to get the screenplay right. The screenplay presumes a level of familiarity with the world of Barsoom (the Martian name for Mars) and its inhabitants that most viewers simply aren’t going to have.
Burroughs wisely made his protagonist a displaced Earthling instead of just diving into the mythos he had created. In A Princess of Mars – the first novel in the series – the Carter is suddenly transported to the red planet, and the reader sees the world through his narration. This provided the audience with an entry point into the world; from there Burroughs leisurely doled out back story and mythology between having his hero meet and kill strange new creatures. The pacing was even, and action beats regularly interrupted the story to keep things interesting.
The screenwriters should have followed Burrough’s approach, but they didn’t. The screenplay doesn’t stay with the Carter but instead darts around at a breakneck pace. Characters in silly costumes and with awkward names chatter incessantly to each other about things that only John Carter purists could follow. They talk, and they talk, and they talk. And only a tenth of what they say makes a damn bit of sense. None of this talking involves the remotest bit of character development by the way, it’s just dry exposition expressed by the actors in a dull monotone.
Only three or four major action set pieces punctuate the tedium, and while Stanton directs these sequences with roughly the same skill and sure handedness that fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird brought to bear on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, there isn’t enough spectacle to make this movie interesting. Almost none of the action sequences carry on for more than six or seven minutes. Meanwhile, auxiliary characters will prattle on and on about politics and rituals.
Make no mistake, the world of John Carter is dense and complicated, but if anyone was ideal to bring this sort of story to life it was Andrew Stanton. The man wrote and directed Wall-E: a feature length love story between two robots using almost no dialogue and that still managed to be both heartwarming and entertaining. John Carter, similarly, could have benefited from being told visually with little emphasis placed on dialogue and exposition. The screenwriters should have left the plethora of awkward titles and massive chunks of the lengthy mythology in the books and focused on the remarkably straightforward and cinematic core story.
The movie occasionally shines when the supporting characters manage to shut up for five minutes. The art design of Barsoom is inventive; the creatures, locations, vehicles, and weapons of the movie are a fusion of steam punk and sword and sorcery fantasy. The green Martians (known as Tharks) and Carter’s faithful pet, Woola, are so expressive that they manage to steal the show from their human counterparts. The action (what little there is) is fast paced and coherent.
However, Disney’s John Carter is ultimately unsatisfying. Who is this movie for? It’s too damn boring for casual movie goers and too stupid for hardcore science fiction geeks. John Carter of Mars deserves a better adaptation than this. I just hope we don’t have to wait another hundred years to get it.