John Carter: Could’ve been much more
3 /5 Stars
First, a rant that’s been swelling up inside me since Avatar: nothing will ever kick Star Wars from its golden throne as the greatest science fiction saga of all time, so producers should stop setting things up to be its successor. That being said, however, I am more than willing to accept new, fantastic tales into my collection so long as they introduce a strange, alien world to be explored. Unfortunately, as it stands, the story of John Carter fails to fall into that niche as neatly as I would’ve wanted.
Taking place in the late 1800’s, John Carter follows an ex-cavalry officer of the same name (Taylor Kitsch) who unwillingly transports himself to the planet Mars while looking for gold. Here he finds himself caught in a devastating war between the planet’s various humanoid species, one of which has been given access to a mysterious weapon of mass destruction by a group of equally mysterious people. Reluctant to pick a side, John is more interested in getting back to his gold than the fate of the planet. But as events escalate and his bond with the natives grows, he starts to realize that there might be more important things to worry about than treasure.
Since this film is based off a book series published a century ago, I find it hard to accuse what’s basically a rags-to-riches/save-the-princess story of “being done before.” Despite this, there really isn’t anything new about John Carter’s plot, so those looking for something different will be disappointed in this regard. A big problem book adaptations face is that they always run into the issue of leaving things out, cramming too much in or rushing through years’ worth of story and character development within two hours. John Carter is no exception because I’m still not clear about the villains’ motives or plans, but I will say the film provides enough ideas to keep most viewers interested, such as the tribes of four-armed, green “Tharks.” That, and I’m glad its anti-imperialism message wasn’t as aggressive as Avatar‘s and was suitably neutral (only time I’ll rip on Avatar here, I swear).
Though it seemed a little over-done in some scenes, Taylor Kitsch makes John Carter a likeable protagonist with his stubborn yet noble personality. Lynn Collins as the Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, also provides a strong female-lead, and William Defoe and Samantha Morton as the Tharks, Tars Tarkas and Sola, give great performances. As for the villains, Mark Strong (whose acting I always enjoy) is enigmatic as Matai Shang, but Ciarán Hinds’ Tardos Mors was somewhat forgettable.
Where John Carter really excels is in the effects department. Whoever was in charge of motion capture did an amazing job in bringing out the emotions in the Tharks, who are completely computer generated, and the design of the architecture and technology was very imaginative. The story, again, is nothing new, but the script doesn’t do anything to make me hate it. I think the way it was told could’ve been a little cleaner since it’s almost a story within a story within a story, but I was never confused on when events were taking place.
I really wanted to love John Carter because I think it has so much potential to be another great addition to the film genre (the books were popular, afterall). In order for this to happen, though, Disney is going to need to give the story a little more substance.