“John Carter” might be the most feckless $250 million 3D Sci-Fi epic ever made. “Feckless,” a word recently launched into our political lexicon, might be too harsh, but while “Carter” isn’t the worst film of its kind to roar into theaters on a wide scale, it is about blandest epic in recent memory.
Based on the famous source material by “Tarzan of the Apes” creator and prolific pulp novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pixar alum Andrew Stanton and a host of talented writers craft a film borrows from everywhere. The story is inspired by Burroughs Carter novel “A Princess of Mars.” The movie follows Virginia Confederate Captain John Carter whose war wounds have him left vacant and wandering the Old West. Carter’s prospecting for gold leads him to a cave inhabited by a race capable of interplanetary travel. By accident, Carter is transported to Mars where he has great power, principally the ability to jump really high. In time, he’s captured by the Martian race known as the Tharks and made to fight as their champion. In another part of Mars, a war is raging for control of the desert planet. Without much information, Carter leaps, literally, to the aid of one side that just happens to put him lip to lip with a fetching Princess (Lynn Collins). Has Carter made the right decision? Will his jumping abilities turn the tide in the great war and change the course of Martian history? And can a man from Earth, whose blood is red and bones of greater density, mate with a local blue blood?
Confusing and, at times, positively frustrating, “John Carter” (also titled “John Carter of Mars”) is a film that screams too much post-production tinkering. During the screening, I actually turned to Film Fix co-host Jeff Marker and asked him if we had missed a reel. This is because the story races forward and things inextricably happen. Travel from over great distances on the red planet seems to happen in minutes and a key fight scene left me scratching my head. In one scene, Carter leaps onto a hoard of approaching soldiers and attacks them mercilessly flailing his arms wildly without regard to anything around him killing, it appears, the entire hoard. And there’s not a scratch on him. Thereafter, he’s captured and chained to a rock! What? This guy just beat an entire army and a few guys hold him down and chain him up to a rock? It makes absolutely no sense.
The politics at play are frustrating as well. Carter is characterized as a man of passion not of wit. When he chooses sides, his opposition is Sab Than (Dominic West), who is a brute being aided by the powerful and mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Matai Shang and his shape shifting crew float in and out of the story causing havoc. And although the locals call them by one name, they go by another. So, okay, they are the nameless ones that pull the strings and make things happen. When Carter upsets their plan, Matai Shang captures him and, in one of the film’s best sequences, tells Carter about their plan and what’s going to happen. It is the oldest trick in the book, the villain gloats and tells the hero what he needs to know to thwart the evil plan. But why this scene works is that it is possibly the most literate and decipherable bit of story telling in the movie. It is also very familiar, which helps to explain the biggest problem with “John Carter:” we’ve seen it all before. Nothing is surprising or really that exciting. Unlike “Avatar,” there is no sense of awe or grandeur. The result is tiring.
Even the top shelf effects can’t overcome the largely toothless story. Given all the special effects laden 3D and IMAX offerings on the market these days, we’ve reached a time when even the best effects can’t trump a soggy and un-thrilling narrative. We have to care about the characters for the magic to happen, and I never fully engaged enough with anyone in “John Carter” be concerned about the outcome. The final fight sequences seemed rushed and because of the multiple levels of political intrigue, I was left confused and unsatisfied.
But “feckless?” Okay, that’s too harsh. But for $250 million and with the guy who directed “WALL-E” at the helm, we’d expect something more impactful. As is, “John Carter” is just another action pic to lay along side the likes of the “Clash of Titans” remake.