John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) is a Confederate veteran who is transported to Mars, where he turns from rogue to hero and leads an alien people to a bright future. Depending on who you are, that either sounds like the most epic thing since “World of Warcraft” — or the stupidest thing since “World of Warcraft.”
At Quality 16 and Rave
The director of this pulpy adventure is Andrew Stanton, best known for such films as “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” … wait, what? How does one go from directing movies about cutesy robots falling in love to this? It’s like Disney picked this guy’s name out of a hat. Regardless, this odd pairing between Stanton and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic sci-fi novel “A Princess of Mars” might be appropriate. After all, strange contrasts are a running theme within “John Carter.”
For example, Bryan Cranston (TV’s “Breaking Bad”) makes a brief appearance as a Union soldier. His appearance is jarring — the audience has only enough time to wonder why the hell Walter White has hair before they’re abruptly thrown into a chase scene and John Carter discovers some cave that transports him to the Red Planet. Suddenly, he’s capable of jumping three hundred feet into the air like he’s on some Spider-Man shit before he’s captured by an alien race called the Thurns who want him to fight for their cause, and wait — there’s also a conspiracy!
All that’s fine. The exposition moves swiftly, and it’s good fun. The real problem is the plot never drops that “jumpy” incoherence. It continually bounces the audience around from scene to scene. After only a half-hour, it becomes obvious this film is trapped in a conflict between being faithful to the source material and standing on its own merits. As a result, “John Carter” feels incomplete and crammed.
There’s an immersive world in “John Carter,” but it’s hidden behind the convoluted plot. The audience wants to learn more about the different alien cultures. They want to know why the human races of Mars are fighting each other and why the Thurns hate them so much. Alas, no such histories are revealed. The story is too occupied with plot twists — many of which are trite and inconsequential — and a childish love story.
Love story? Of course there’s one! And, of course, it involves a sensual-but-independent princess (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) who wants to save her planet. Obviously, Carter has to save her and earn her respect and love, thus giving our stock hero a reason to stay on Mars and fight. It’s an old tale recounted many times. This time around, it’s told with little vigor or believability. And it certainly doesn’t help that poorly supplemented by a lifeless script, both Kitsch and Collins have the emotional density of a feather.
That said, the visuals are something to marvel at. The production design is original, and some of the action scenes are thrilling. Plus, there are plenty of comical moments, which were warmly received by the audience — there should have been more of them.
Unfortunately, these moments and whatever suspense “John Carter” could have had are smothered by a clumsy story and poor pacing.