I am not familiar with Edgar Rice Burrows’ novels the new “John Carter” film is based on, but I ‘m sure this movie is doing them no favors. Long, uneven, overproduced and outmatched by its contemporaries, “John Carter” is not so much horrible as it is incredibly unremarkable.
Set in the late 1800s, John Carter is a former Civil War soldier hoping to retire upon discovering a cave full of gold. After an incident involving a former commander, however, he stumbles upon another cave that transports him to Mars (called “Barsoom” by its natives). Given superhuman abilities from the reduced gravity, he becomes involved in a deadly war between three civilizations that only he can end.
The potential for this plot is wasted, however, as we realize how banal the human-like Martians’ storyline is. The villains’ motivations are a cumbersome mixture of ancient science fiction clichés, their theatrical Roman-like appearance is uninspired and we have to sit through long stretches of dead air to experience lackluster action sequences. Compared to the slightly more interesting subplot with the Indian-like alien Martians, it feels generic. The actual writing does not help, with flat dialogue awkwardly flowing from comfortably old-fashioned to anachronistically modern.
John Carter himself is not a particularly interesting character. On earth, we get glimpses of him being a compelling Han Solo styled rogue. Once he gets to Mars, however, the only thing that distinguishes him is his ability to jump far. Though it is fun to see these Hulk-like jumps at first, their appeal diminishes through overuse. We are told John has superhuman strength, but we only see him use it in three far-apart action sequences.
Attempts to compensate his rather bland personality are made through randomly edited flashbacks, but these play like subpar versions of the flashbacks from “Cowboys and Aliens.” All of this makes it hard to blame the actor though, since he is clearly trying his best.
The real problem is that Andrew Stanton, the director of Pixar’s “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” doesn’t seem in control of the film’s individual elements. The tone is constantly fighting against itself, with random bits of comedy unnaturally fused to deadly serious scenes. The A-list cast struggles to give more than bland performances with their thinly-written roles.
Unimpressive camerawork and art design make Mars look no different than a desert in Utah. The costumes substitute quantity over quality, trying to hide cheap material with excessive ornamentation. The editing has a dreamlike flow to it, starting and stopping scenes with no build-up or falling action. There are some good visual effects, but unfortunately they are more impressive technically than artistically.
I had to step out for a few minutes early in the film and when I got back I asked a woman next to me what I missed. After thinking for a second, she could only reply, “They’re on Mars.” That told me everything I needed to know.