John Carter: good action, weak story
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
When a studio invests $250 million in a film, hires Michael Chabon to polish the script and hands it to a two-time Academy Award winner to direct, the outcome is clearly expected to be more than "decent".
Sadly, that's exactly what John Carter, Disney's adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, is: not bad overall and darn entertaining at points but ultimately forgettable.
That's definitely not what Disney will want to hear, considering that John Carter was supposed to be the studio's answer to Avatar. Under the huge weight of those expectations, director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) has delivered a film with stunning visuals but one that's seriously hampered by an overloaded plot and some less than brilliant acting by the leads.
Based on the first of an 11-novel series (hello, franchise!), John Carter follows the adventures of a confederate soldier (Taylor Kitsch, Friday Night Lights) who's obsessed with a cave of gold. The cavern, however, is also a portal that connects Earth with Mars and beyond, and soon enough, Carter ends up on the red planet known as Barsoom by the natives, in the middle of a war between the travelling city of Zodanga and the more benign state of Helium.
Carter is first enslaved and later adopted by the Tharks - the 10-foot-tall green aliens with four arms and short tempers you've seen in the trailer. They're definitely the most entertaining part of the film. The weaker gravity of Barsoom gives Carter superhuman strength, turning him into a fearsome warrior. That comes in handy after he becomes smitten with the princess of Helium, meaning he must fend off the warriors of Zodanga, led by the brute Sab Than (Dominic West, The Wire).
Despite the wacky names, the film simplifies the rich mythology created by Burroughs - but in an unsatisfactory way. The problem with John Carter is that it doesn't commit to either a complex background (like Lord of the Rings) or a fully streamlined version of the story, meaning that too often the movie delivers indigestible chunks of plot just to get them out of the way.
On the upside, whenever John Carter focuses on the action, it sizzles. The scenery is also great: Stanton clearly put everything he learned at Pixar to excellent use creating the terminally dry Barsoom.
The film also succeeds at making compelling CGI characters: the green aliens Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and Sola (Samantha Morton), the local pariah, are far more interesting than anybody else on screen.
Unfortunately, that includes Kitsch - although his co-lead, Dejah Thoris as the princess of Helium, is worse.
The film has a very droll sense of humour (the Tharks rename Carter "Virginia," for example, and the gag gets more mileage than you'd think), although it's underused. In the same way, Kelowna-born Kitsch is at his best whenever he stops taking himself too seriously. Regrettably, Kitsch usually likes to roll the icing on very thick, as anybody who watched The Bang Bang Club knows.
John Carter borrows freely from Greek history and mythology: the three-way conflict between Helium, Tharks and Zodanga, for example, is reminiscent of the clashes between Athens, Sparta and Persia. The gods also play a role in the story: just like in the story of Prometheus, divine messengers interfere with technological development to keep control over the puny Barsoomians.
Too bad they didn't see fit to offer some heavenly inspiration to the film's makers.