Dramatic momentum. It's harder to build than you might think. All the gee-whiz digital effects in the world can't compensate for stories or characters that fail to emotionally and viscerally connect with their audience. It takes a real gift for storytelling and a mastery of vision to create an epic-scaled adventure that dazzles the eye and seizes the heart in equal measure. Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and James Cameron clearly have it. Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and, hell, even Mel Gibson (Braveheart, Apocalypto), have also shown they can deliver. Unfortunately, Oscar-award winning director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) will not be joining that list.
It can be argued that the Pixar director was probably not the right fit for John Carter, a big-screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 The Princess of Mars. After all, his animated work suggests that he's more of a humorist than a spectacle filmmaker. But given Brad Bird's (Iron Giant, The Incredibles) wildly successful transition to live-action thrill-making with the latest Mission Impossible movie, and the fact that Burroughs' work has inspired everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar, it's understandable why Disney rolled the $200 million dice on this potential franchise. Too bad it was a bad bet. While John Carter is far from the failure some are claiming, it's simply not good enough to inspire enduring interest or passion.
Abrupt yet pokey, Stanton's pacing and storytelling seem off right from the beginning, where we're thrust into a confusing and undramatic air battle above the surface of Mars ... or as the natives call it, Barsoom. One faction of red humanoids is about to defeat another when a mysterious figure, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), decides to tip the scales with a secret weapon. From there we're sent back to Earth, where young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Dabyl Sabara) has been summoned to the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Tim Riggins on TV's Friday Night Lights). We learn via Carter's diary that the movie's hero was a cynical Civil War veteran who decided to seek his fortune prospecting for gold in Arizona. Evading a group of angry Apaches, Carter stumbles upon his cave of gold ... and, accidentally, a portal to Mars. Without going into too much detail, our hero is adopted by 12-foot, four-armed Tharks, gets caught between the warring factions of Heliumites and Zodagans (led by baddie Dominic West), falls in love with a warrior-princess-scientist named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and discovers that, due to Mars' weaker gravity, he has superhuman abilities.
There's plenty of great stuff to work with here, and Burroughs' books (there are 11), in all their pulp weirdness, offer lots of opportunities for giddy cornball fun. Stanton, however, opts for a more earnest and "realistic" approach, too informed, perhaps, by Avatar's success. There are certainly good moments but too often they're buried beneath finicky details. The action is coherent but never rousing, the designs are lavish without sweeping us up, and too much time is spent on exposition instead of building meaningful relationships. The result is an impressively designed world that lacks the danger, wonder and sexiness needed to become a classic. Frankly, the movie seems too epic for Stanton's talents.
Kitsch, who is clearly being groomed to become a Hollywood action star, does OK with what he's given, but isn't enough. In the books, John Carter is defined by two essential ingredients: the friendship he forges with Tars Tarkus and his romance with Dejah Thoris. Here, both take a back seat to the political maneuverings of the Martian races. For all the thinking that went into Barsoom's design, some of that energy might've been better spent developing the hero for which the movie is named. A chiseled bare chest and a few gauzy flashbacks does not a character make. Oddly, Collins' princess comes off as the more interesting character, a pretty scientist who can kick ass.
Putting aside that John Carter is yet another tale of an Anglo warrior rescuing unskeptical savages from themselves, Stanton misses thematic opportunities within his own script. The irony of a man embittered by his experiences during the "War Between the States" drawn into a similar conflict on Barsoom is mostly unexplored. If Carter has any feelings about the situation, they go unspoken. Similarly, potential parallels between the "red" men of the American West and the red men of Mars are completely overlooked.
Lest my disappointment (I was a child fan of the books) be mistaken for a slam, there are many who will find John Carter adequately entertaining. There's enough eye-candy and spectacle (the giant white gorillas are pretty cool) to make for a satisfying matinee, and the ending is cleverly executed. But as a big-budget series starter, Stanton's movie has an uphill battle to excite the kinds of audiences that would clamor for a sequel. —Jeff Meyers