John Carter has more personality than anyone should rightly expect from a two-hour-plus, CGI-heavy, sci-fi fantasy epic. But can a behemoth like this get by on personality alone?
The story, drawn from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars series, is a whopper. While prospecting in the American West, Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) discovers a mysterious cave, where he is suddenly transported to Mars. At least that’s what we call it. The natives – including green humanoids with tusks and four arms – call it Barsoom, and soon Carter finds himself caught in the midst of an interplanetary struggle among various warring clans.
An intriguing creative team is behind John Carter. It marks the live-action directing debut of Finding Nemo and WALL-E director Andrew Stanton, while novelist Michael Chabon had a hand in the screenplay. The result is a big-budget spectacle with charming idiosyncrasies; it’s major-studio product with a surprising personal touch.
Part of this is the clever framing device (inspired by Burroughs), which involves a posthumously revealed journal of Carter’s being bequeathed to his nephew (Daryl Sabara). Carter has died, we’re told, and this journal will reveal the secrets of a life that had been cloaked in secret. It’s there that we learn of Carter’s adventures in the West, as well as his time on Mars, before we return to the nephew’s present time for a dashing coda.
That’s a lot of storylines piled on top of each other, and there are times – especially when we’re being schooled in the history of Barsoom – when the movie buckles under their weight. Burroughs cranked these Mars stories out, and it occasionally feels as if we’re drinking all of the novels at once from a hose.
Still, it’s not the plot (or plots) that define John Carter; it’s the delightful way they’re adorned. Barsoom has been envisioned as a dusty civilization that’s a combination of ancient traditions, industrial-age technology and sci-fi invention. Especially intriguing are the solar-powered aircraft; they’re operated by cranks and levers, yet harness energy via translucent wings that shimmer in the sun. In its emphasis on art direction and design, John Carter transcends its cumbersome narrative in a way that’s reminiscent of 2011’s Immortals.
It exceeds something like Immortals, however, in terms of character (and here is where you can detect Stanton’s touch). Kitsch is fine in the beefcake lead, but he’s a thin creation compared to those CGI, four-armed aliens known as Tharks. When Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the Thark who befriends Carter, pounds his fists into his hands to make a point, he does so with two fists for added emphasis. (He also holds his sword with two hands because, why not?) Here and elsewhere Stanton and his animation team use movement to express character; a basic strategy, but one too many CGI bonanzas fail to employ.
There are also light touches throughout. I liked the alien dog that immediately bonds with Carter, as well as the running joke that Carter comes to be called Virginia because he introduces himself as John Carter of Virginia. (Yes, it’s an easy gag, but one that deflates the macho pomposity that often overtakes these action extravaganzas.) Like its hero, who takes advantage of Mars’ unique gravity to leap great distances, John Carter shows unexpected dexterity, especially given its narrative girth. The movie jumps higher than it really should.