Based on a classic science-fiction novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs published for the first time in 1917, John Carter proves that ‘classic’ not always means ‘good for practically everything’. ‘A Princess Of Mars’– that was the original title- was not especially ambitious but hugely popular book, with, Gawd help us, no fewer than ten sequels.
The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), born in Virginia so you know for sure he is a perfect gentleman, inexplicably transported to Mars. While discovering the charms of the red planet he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions. Of course a local princess has to be involved – this time she is a ‘professor-princess’, a suitably pretty, sword-wielding girl called Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Let not the term ‘professor’ deceive you, though – Dejah still behaves like your ordinary Disney heroine: she is a charming lady in distress, she sulks, she dresses in too-revealing outfits, making men around her drool. Of course she has to fall for Carter, how could she not to – he is a gentleman, he is white, he is rich, he has longish hair…and he jumps like a flea. Carter’s jumping abilities make him somehow a sought-after commodity in the incoming war. Will he be able to make the difference? You bet it. Just look at his abs.
This movie could have been entitled: “Star Wars marry Avatar because their great-grandmother Pocahontas orders them to do so and then they cheat on her (him?) with Cowboys & Aliens while their common friends, Fire Maidens Of Outer Space are watching”.
Too complicated? Let me straighten things out then.
Any plot synopsis for John Carter resembles Avatar so thoroughly that it might be easier to point out what’s different, which isn’t much. Handsome, muscular Civil War veteran John Carter (played by the justifiably little known and tragically well-named Taylor Kitsch, honestly, with such a name he should have been a fashion designer) is prospecting for gold in Arizona and doing a wretched impersonation of John Wayne when he finds himself transported to a densely populated Mars – called Barsoom by its inhabitants – thanks to something about some lost gold, a cave with spiders and a mysterious bald guy. What fun.
Here Carter encounters the first locals: mysterious Tharks, 3-meter-plus green aliens (green, not blue! A major difference, people!) with two pairs of arms and tusks who ride huge eight-legged bald hamsters. Still I couldn’t help thinking that they looked exactly like some illegal refugees from “Avatar” minus the Na’vis’ grace, colouring and clarity of purpose. Barbarians, all of them, the Tharks were. Only brutal strength counted among them. The Tharks capture our civilized Mr. Carter and soon one of their leaders simply falls in love with his superpowers, or rather one major superpower — he’s able to jump really, really high, which makes him a cert for a couple of gold medals in any Martian Olympics and also a drop-dead-gorgeous-and-utterly-desirable male specimen in the eyes of any Martian female.
Soon enough Carter finds out that humans living on Mars keep being humans so they have been fighting each other for the world domination, women and riches (perhaps not in that order but still, you get the drift). There are two major factions there: the red-skinned Heliumites are led by peace-loving King Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his tasty daughter, a brilliant scientist turned warrior princess, Dejah yum-yum Thoris with eyes bluer that Blue Curaçao. Very predictably the red-skins’ opponents are the cruel, devious, cowardly and completely ruthless Zodangans led by a snarly and stupid but quite good-looking Sab Than (Dominic West). Sab Than’s life had been saved by the Therns once (the same bald guy Carter met in the cave plus two cronies) so now he is their lap dog for obvious reasons – he is so stupid that he has to listen to somebody wiser.
Ah yes, the Therns. These are godlike creatures led by Matai Shang (the ubiquitous Mark Strong) and a nameless sidekick, who, if you ask me, is a dead ringer for Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Therns can change shape at will and are not afraid to impersonate even elderly women; it is clear from the very beginning that they have brains, deal the cards and rule the rooster. Still they seem to be in a magic-saving mode for a reason or reasons unknown. Perhaps the evolution has something special prepared for them and they must save their resources. Instead they employ the stupid, primitive but muscled Zodangans to perpetrate their evil deeds. How very right.
From that point we’re meant to root for John Carter who has to defeat his many enemies, some pretty big monsters and save his girl but there’s one problem: he’s completely personality-free. Far from siding with good against evil, he seems to support whichever tribe happens to have the most attractive warrior princess showing off her Barsoom goodies. Most strikingly, the hero does practically everything Daniel Craig did in Cowboys & Aliens: wake up in a desert with an amulet, discover new powers, and suffer troubling flashbacks about a dead woman he couldn’t protect because he’d returned too late from the war, undoubtedly held back by one of those famously pretty and licentious Virginia ladies…at which point I almost shouted at the screen: “show me the ladies, damnit, and stop boring me to death!”
Stanton’s screenwriting skills are slightly below those of George Lucas, so there’s plenty of clunky exposition and such inadvertent laugh-lines as: ‘I would lay down my life for Helium.’ My favourite is when the princess announces: ‘I am a regent at the Royal Helium Academy of Science.’ Yeah, now show me a king.
Andrew Stanton’s two animated hits, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, gave him the right to fail — a privilege he exercises to the full with John Carter. The wonderful Wall-E wasn’t happenstance. Still it is obvious Stanton has no apparent eye for action, and no talent for alternating CGI world-building with “live” (if the word still carries any meaning) footage.
I don’t usually bring up a film’s budget in my verdicts, but the staggering $250 million price tag for “John Carter” would give anyone a pause. I suppose you could argue that masterpieces don’t come cheap. Then again, “John Carter” is no masterpiece. The scale is epic and the visuals expensive, but the human element is missing, along with narrative skills, originality and logic. How much it cost again? It’s as if “John Carter” were a fire pit with plenty of kindling and logs, but no one could find a match – now try to boil some water and make coffee.