Ex-Civil War Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is on the run, looking for a quiet life. Upon being forcibly re-enlisted, he finds himself caught in the crossfire of a skirmish somewhere in the desert of Virginia. Looking for cover, he stumbles upon a strange cave, and before he knows what’s happening he is somehow transported to Mars – known locally as “Barsoom”. Confused, disorientated and struggling to control his strength in such low gravity, Carter makes his escape from the four-armed, insect like “Thark” aboriginal warriors who found and claimed him, only to be set upon by Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), Princess of Barsoom, and swept up into Mars’ very own civil war.
Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon’s screenplay may be incoherent, long-winded and difficult to keep up with (they rely much too heavily on the audience’s trust, as there’s a lot of set-up required before anything much can happen), but there’s an instantly classic, epic and dream-like vibe to John Carter that helps support its vision. It may become too consumed by its own overwhelming ambition, but there’s a clear through-line as Carter learns to forgive his past mistakes and find comfort and new life in helping the Martians reclaim their world. This levelheaded sensibility, along with the many problems Mars faces (war, drought) playing into our own concerns for Earth’s future, enables the audience to find meaning and worth in amongst the madness.
Kitsch, also, in his first leading role, does wonders with Carter, a character who quite easily could’ve been annoyingly one-dimensional and undesirable. He taps into Carter’s emotional depth and instability as a person to ensure his story feels like one worth telling, and the whole self-explorative aspect that drives the narrative is believable enough for audiences to invest in.
Unfortunately, all those redeeming aspects are buried underneath inconsistencies that limit the level of immersiveness you can allow without feeling unrewarded. It could be the distracting way in which Stanton flips between world, character and point of view without prior warning. Maybe it’s the way that Mark Strong’s villainous Matai Shang, though a performance that commendably never veers too far into the absurd, is left almost entirely unexplained until the final act. It’s almost certainly at least partly the absurd use of 3D that ruins the illusiveness of Mars itself. Whatever the reason, John Carter just isn’t always able to rise above its faults and become the film it believes it is.
If its director and visionary – Andrew Stanton – were a novice it would be easy to pardon these mistakes and put them down to inexperience or studio interference, but he’s not – Stanton’s done all this before, and achieved much better results on previous occasions. He’s the man who made a desolate world in Wall-E speak louder than words ever could, and breathed extraordinary life into the deep waters of Finding Nemo, but here, he seems completely in over his head.
It’s hard to say exactly where Stanton falters. On the surface, it could be said that he does so much right in terms of panoptic camera angles and the implementation of a sweeping, earnest Michael Giacchino score that punctuates the narrative in all the right places. But, then, on closer inspection, there’s so many defective elements that could’ve contributed to John Carter’s inability to solidify itself as a fully functional fantasy experience – not least the 12A rating that feels wrong (it’s nothing short of a blood-bath) and the fact that there’s simply too much set-up that needs to happen before the film can find its mojo.
That’s not to say the film’s dull, or could’ve worked any better if it had been made purely for adults. These are questions that cannot, and will not, be answered. The action sequences are as entertaining as you could possibly dream of (the White Ape battle is one for the books), some of the supporting players make for intriguing friends and foes to Carter and there’s enough humour in there to elicit more than one or two laughs. It’s more that the writers seem too rigidly focused on John Carter’s emotional journey to have fun with the material. Perhaps that’s a good thing, meaning we can look forward to the inevitable sequel with wide eyes and heady anticipation.
John Carter is an unusual film. Built upon rickety foundations, it has all the clear-cut signs of a film that shouldn’t work. However, it somehow manages to rise above its complexities and deliver a tenebrous, escapist and, on the whole, enthralling fantasy-adventure. It may be arduous, but it’s an experience worth having if only for the wild ride it provides.