I wasn’t demanding much. The lackluster trailer didn’t give me high hopes for this picture. Unfortunately even with my low expectations this movie still failed to deliver. John Carter is an action-adventure vehicle that will satisfy people with those pre-summer cravings for a special-effects-laden science fiction extravaganza. But if you’re searching for a plot that will truly engage the emotions, look elsewhere. In short, when it’s not dazzling you with computer graphics, it’s a turgid bore.
John Carter is the prototypical space cowboy. Our story is based on the novel A Princess of Mars published as a novel back in 1917 by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Star Wars and Avatar all owe a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation John Carter. Despite the feeling of déjà vu that infects the proceedings, he was the original, so you can‘t really fault this for plagiarism. The problem is Burroughs’ Barsoom Series of books inspired better films that appropriated his ideas with more technique. This Disneyfied approach should entertain younger viewers unaccustomed with those science fiction sagas but for anyone familiar with the aforementioned productions, this episode feels a little “been there done that.”
It starts off with promise. Former Confederate soldier finds a medallion that transports him to the planet Mars (or Barsoom as it’s named here). Once there, due to the alien conditions, he acquires superhuman strength and the ability to leap enormous distances. Soon he is captured by a fierce tribe of 15 foot tall aliens called Tharks. The leader, Tars Tarkas, discovers John’s increased abilities and wants his assistance. Meanwhile Mars, excuse me Barsoom, is in the middle of a civil war. The citizens of Helium have been resisting the evil takeover by the kingdom of Zodanga led by their king, Sab Than. As he obliterates Helium’s legions, King Tardos Mors yields to Sab Than’s terms of surrender: giving the hand of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris, in marriage to him. But she’s not willing to go quietly. She flees in her spaceship with Sab Than in hot pursuit. John Carter observes this and he comes to her aid. Not that she needs his help. She can take care of herself thank you very much. Also causing trouble is actor Mark Strong who appears contractually obligated to continue playing the ubiquitous bad guy that‘s bald. Here he’s a manipulative villain named Matai Shang – the leader of some mysterious white-skinned race known as the Therns. John Carter is later befriended by someone named Kantos Kan, who becomes his trusted ally.
Are you still following? If so, you’re doing better than I did watching this. This is merely the set up. As the story develops it grows more perplexing and convoluted. 1980’s Flash Gordon knew how to do foolishness like this with campy glee. There’s a brief montage in the very beginning where John Carter keeps getting apprehended by Colonel Powell played by Bryan Cranston. Carter rejects his offer to fight for the Union army and Carter is repeatedly successful in his escapes, much to Powell’s exasperation. It‘s an amusing bit. If only the whole movie displayed this light touch. Slightly complicating matters is actor Dominic West who portrays Sab Than and James Purefoy who plays Kantos Kan. The two actors confusingly resemble each other. Same haircuts, same red face tattoos. Even their armor looks the same, although one has red details (West) and the other has blue (Purefoy). After awhile I gave up trying to make sense of the narrative and just appreciated the cool battle scenes. They reportedly paid $250 million dollars for the bombast, might as well enjoy the fireworks, right?
John Carter is another one of those technically well crafted but spiritually vacant creations that consistently triumph style over substance. I suppose you need to check your brain at the door with these types of tales, but how do you account for that punishing length? At 132 minutes the incomprehensible story wants to be some sort of epic when it should have just been lighthearted fun. At least 45 minutes could have been excised from the bloated script packed with unnecessary characters and jargon. It practically dares you to pay attention. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are the physically perfect embodiment of action heroes that each deliver their lines with oratory weight. But their charms are purely superficial. There’s precious little charisma to be found in either. I dare say the most engaging personality in the entire picture is this ten legged creature called a calot that is a cross between a dog and a toad. His name is Woola and he’s a loyal sidekick to John Carter. The way this lumbering monster zips around the screen like a newborn puppy seems to defy the laws of physics, but the critter is an absolute delight. I’d rather see a spin-off flick: John Carter II: Woola the Calot!