It might very well be that somewhere in the classic stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs (also the creator of Tarzan, by the way) about John Carter and his exploits there lurks a diamond of a sci-fi adventure movie. But John Carter (previously titled John Carter of Mars) is not it. I feel slightly uncomfortable trashing this film. Arguing that it is not very original is just unfair. Rice Burroughs’ science fiction stories are over a century old, and if this film seems like a cheap Star Wars rip-off, then it is only so because George Lucas was inspired by those stories when making his big break-through film.
But it does feel awfully familiar, and that is probably the reason it took so long before anyone dared to bring John Carter to the screen. Studios must have felt intuitively that a story about a displaced hero, a princess, warring factions, green aliens called Tharks and shape shifting blue baddies would, to modern audiences unacquainted with Rice Burroughs’ work, be a bit daft and at the same time terribly cliched. At best.
Basically, the one thing that Disney’s take on the material has to offer is its director. Andrew Stanton is a legend. He is the guy who wrote the Toy Story trilogy. Who made Wall-E, and Finding Nemo. Not just excellent kids’ or family films. Excellent films. The failure (artistically, financially John Carter will no doubt do as its meant to) of this film is all the more painful considering the CV on which it is a stain.
The story, for whoever cares, is as following: It is 1868 and disgruntled Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor ‘what’s-in-a-name’ Kitsch) seeks for gold as he is mysteriously transported to the planet of ‘Barsoom’. There he is captured by tall green aliens, but he manages to save a human-like princess of a city that is at war with another city and he gets mixed up in the local affairs. Everyone wants him on their side, because John Carter is incredibly strong and agile on this strange planet with a lower gravity.
If that does not sound daft enough for you, the locals are called names such as Tars Tarkas, Dejah Soris, Tardors Mors and Sab Than. And there aren’t just Tharks, there are also Warhoons, Zodangans and (you won’t believe this) Heliumites. The latter, by the way, do not speak with an inexplicably high pitched voice, unfortunately. All these strange and uninteresting people are at war with themselves and each other, on a planet that for an unapparent reason is apparently dying. And the bad guys have a weapon that is based on the mysterious blue ‘ninth ray’ of something.
If that does not sound problematic enough for you than please do also consider that the film is a mess. The plotting is all over the place, the dialogue is heavy in tone yet meaningless in, well, meaning, and the action scenes are outright boring. Compared to this, Avatar was a text-book example of disciplined and swift storytelling.
But the most terrible thing is that the film is so ugly. The art director must have been on some nasty drugs when designing the world of Barsoom, and the color scheme is all over the place. I had to physically look away (!) from the screen regularly to protect my eyes. I am not even interested in criticizing the worst 3D I’ve seen as of yet, because however bad the 3D is, there is nothing there for it to ruin.
I feel sorry for the actors who, some way or another, found themselves in this train-wreck of a film. Ciaran Hinds at least shows that he knows he is in a drunken panto farce. But It is painful to see Dominic West, Mark Strong, Lynn Collins and the actually quite charismatic Taylor Kitsch trying so hard.