I went into John Carter with a sense of wary optimism. Yes, the trailers were unremarkable and they hinted at the possibility of a failure of epic proportions, but there were still reasons to remain interested. Well, actually only one, big reason. I had faith in Andrew Stanton, one of the brightest creatives minds at Pixar, the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Because of his involvement, I had confidence that the trailers for John Carter were not going to be representative of the film as a whole. That confidence was shot down right quick as the film played in front of me. Not even the tremendous amount of goodwill built up from Stanton’s previous endeavors can disguise the fact that John Carter is a 250 million dollar turkey, a massive disappointment from just about any way you look at it.
Based on an old science fiction series of novels from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter tells the story of a Civil War veteran who finds himself transported to Mars, where he becomes entangled in a war between the planet’s rival cultures. That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot summary, because frankly the narrative is borderline incomprehensible. The film is filled with goofy-sounding names, from Tharks and Heliumites to Thurns and Barsoom; I lasted about 5 minutes before I stopped taking the story seriously. It’s all very old-fashioned, and also incredibly cheesy. Be warned: if you thought Avatar had some eye-rolling moments, as I did, then watching John Carter carries the risk of having your eyes becoming permanently locked in an upward gaze.
To keep this from being just one long rant, I suppose I can point out a couple of positives. The addition of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character doesn’t initially make much sense, but it pays off in a nice way at the end of the film. Mark Strong has a handful of scenes as the film’s shape-shifting villain, and he’s always a terrific screen presence, even when the film surrounding him isn’t worth much of anything. And there is a battle around the middle of the film where the title character fights an army of creatures single-handedly, and the scene is intercut with flashbacks to a traumatic moment from his past on Earth; this sequence actually has some emotional weight to it, something that can’t be said about the rest of the film. That’s about it for the positives, really.
I could devote pages and pages to what doesn’t work in John Carter, but it’s tough to muster up enough energy for such a bland production. The acting is fairly terrible across the board, but Taylor Kitsch is especially noteworthy, bringing almost nothing to the main role beyond looking good shirtless. Elsewhere, it’s painful to watch Ciaran Hinds struggle through his terrible dialogue, and it’s equally painful to hear Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton struggling to bring life to uninteresting motion-capture creations. Only Lynn Collins and the aforementioned Strong manage to escape relatively unscathed. The plot quickly dissolves to characters traveling from point A to point B to point A again, inflating an already bloated running length. And despite the budget of $250 million, the film is rarely visually arresting, and at times the effects work is surprisingly poor (especially in an air chase near the end, where the shoddy CGI visuals rob the sequence of any excitement). I’ve already mentioned the considerable cheese factor, but to be honest the film is so dull and uninvolving that I was wishing for the film to be over at the halfway mark.
And that’s really the worst thing to be said about the film. Despite the fact that Stanton has talked in interviews about how personal John Carter is and how passionate he is about the source material, the finished project displays none of that passion. It’s a faceless production, an assembly-line product that will be forgotten in only a few months. Because it comes from Andrew Stanton, whose Finding Nemo and Wall-E have endured as modern classics, the forgettable nature of John Carter is particularly disheartening. I can’t imagine that this film will turn any kind of substantial profit, so here’s hoping it will serve as something of a reality check for Stanton. He’s still a filmmaker of considerable promise, but films like John Carter just aren’t going to cut it.
-British film critic Mark Kermode offered a particularly scathing review of the film, one that I agree with completely (I struggled in my review not to just reiterate his points). Anyway, his review is well worth a listen: