‘John Carter’ Review
Has its moments but overall a mess that disappoints.
Coming off a lot of bad press including rumors of inflated budgets, an unfortunate title change, low audience interest and extended reshoots, Disney’s sci-fi epic ‘John Carter’ unfortunately doesn’t do enough to shut the naysayers up. While it has its moments and features some impressive action, it also has a convoluted and incomprehensible storyline that sorely lacks in momentum, burying a potential classic into the depths of mediocrity.
Based on the classic pulp adventure novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film follows weary Civil war captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported to Barsoom (Mars), where he begins to get involved in an epic war between the tribes there including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the princess of Mars Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Banding together to fight the good, he rediscovers his humanity and gives himself a chance of redemption.
This is the live-action debut of director Andrew Stanton, a Pixar filmmaker most famous for helming ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Finding Nemo’. While another animation director Brad Bird very successfully transitioned to live-action territory with ‘Ghost Protocol’ a few months back, the same cannot be said about Stanton. As talented of a director that he is, the film doesn’t feel cohesive enough and reeks of a troubled production.
After a long expository opening which introduces John Carter, we are instantly transported to Mars and the film is serviceable till this point. It’s in the second act where it begins to get extremely muddled. The plot goes off in different tangents involving long dialogue sequences filled with exposition about mystical powers and mythology that never really matter by the end of the film. The momentum of the film is instantly killed with elongated scenes like these and that’s where the film falters. It’s over 2 hours long but that’s never a problem with an epic – the problem here is that the film feels even longer than it is because it lacks any sort of build-up that logically leads to the finale. It meanders around scene to scene with a lot of false endings followed by more meaningless dialogue scenes that lead to other false endings. It felt like Stanton didn’t really have a grasp on how to look at the film from the top down and cut out all the unnecessary elements that plague the film and focus on what the journey is really about. All this results in a plot that’s way more convoluted and complex that it should have been and ends up being pretty hard to follow for needless reasons. One can feel that entire sequences of the film have been re-shot or added in later, which could be why the film feels as disjointed as it is.
That’s not to say that there are no impressive moments in the film, because there are. And pretty much every major action sequence in the film manages to satisfy you and ends up being the highlight of the film. Because there’s so much confusion in the film, the only thing that you actually end up following very well are the action scenes. There’s a brilliant sequence in the film that actually evokes a Pixar feeling, where John is fighting hordes of aliens and the film cuts to a tragic flashback of the character from back on Earth. The way the scene is directed and edited has maximum emotional impact and it’s a wonder why the film itself wasn’t as impactful. The arena sequences are intense, and the last minutes of the film are actually well-done and make the film different from other adventures of this kind (although the final shot of the film is strangely reminiscent of ‘Avatar’).
Films like these usually sell themselves on the visuals and while ‘John Carter’ has a lot of great CGI to impress you with, the environments themselves are drab and bland. The entire movie is shot in desertic rocky terrain which doesn’t offer any sort of variety throughout the film, giving it an Old West feel without really having the mood of that genre to go along with it. Compare this to Pandora from ‘Avatar’, where the gorgeous nature of that world compensated for the times when the film wasn’t up to par. Here, when the movie is suffering, the visuals are equally gloomy and don’t help in diverting your attention away from the faults. And when it comes to the 3D, my only advice is to avoid seeing it in that format by all means. The movie was shot in 2D and seems to be a hasty conversion because it has almost no 3D moments at all and doesn’t seem to benefit from the extra dimension. You can watch the entire movie without the glasses with minimal blurring.
Taylor Kitsch is the big action star of this year with ‘Battleship’ also releasing in a month, and it’s his shoulders that the film rests upon. And while he’s charming enough with screen presence, there’s not much for him to do here other than look confused or intense depending on the scenario. I would blame this on the underwhelming character development in the screenplay for pretty much every character involved. John Carter has a troubled past which leads to some meaty scenes, but other than that is a one-dimensional being and it shows in Kitsch’s performance. Same can be said about Lynn Collins as the princess who’s a one-note character that doesn’t seem to change by the end of the film. The excellent Mark Strong is the villain of the film but is short changed once again because he’s playing the standard villain without a personality or enough screen-time to really impress. It’s not that the cast isn’t trying. It’s just that they’re wishing they had more nuances to their character to work with.
At best, ‘John Carter’ is an ambitious effort that didn’t work out as well as planned. What could have been an excellent sci-fi space opera ended up being an above average tale thanks to muddled storytelling that doesn’t do it justice. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable, it’s just that it should have been so much more than it was.