Stop if you’ve heard this one before. A man of humble origin is plucked from his surroundings and thrust into a central role in a massive, age-old conflict on another world, wherein it becomes clear that he is a fierce warrior, a capable leader, and a dashing romantic prospect for a wayward (but headstrong) princess. If that brief synopsis rings as overly familiar, then you understand the difficult position the makers of John Carter have found themselves in: despite the fact that their Edgar Rice Burroughs-penned source material is a century old, having already served as the template for any number of sci-fi/action epics in the interim, contemporary viewers can’t help but feel the sting of overfamiliarity. That places the onus on director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and his fellow screenwriters, including novelist Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) to transcend that sense of been-there-done-that and craft an experience worthy of distinction. The most charitable response possible to the question of whether or not they’ve succeeded is: sort of.
Taylor Kitsch, the Friday Night Lights / X-Men star who himself has been unexpectedly positioned as another sort of iconic figure, the Blockbuster Everyman, stars as the title character, a former soldier who’s fled the battlefields of the American Civil War in order to pursue personal wealth and escape the horrors of his age. After being nabbed by the gruff but not-altogether-evil Powell (Bryan Cranston), Carter escapes to find what he takes for his mythical cave of riches, only to come upon a portal to Mars. Once there, he is immediately set upon by a race of fifteen-foot-tall green men (and women, it would seem) called Tharks, who see him as a freakish anomaly. They turn out to be only one of several factions fighting for control of the planet, which is in the midst of a civil war of its own, with another race of super-powerful beings, the Therns (headed up by Mark Strong, the most oft-cast film villain in recent history) working to some nefarious purpose behind the scenes. And yes, there’s a princess, Deja (Lynn Collins), a scientist and warrior who serves the city of Helium, and who is betrothed to a different villain, Sab Than (Dominic West). Got all that?
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John Carter has a few assets that merit mention. Despite the film’s exorbitant length, the pacing is swift throughout, aided by Carter’s quick-to-adapt nature and some carefully placed exposition, only some of which feels unnecessary. Michael Giacchino’s score is exciting, varied, and colorful throughout; notice the off-kilter horn-led number that graces a gladiatorial showdown. Stanton shows the same fluidity with directing action setpieces as he did with the animated Wall-E, even if none of these sequences qualifies as particularly memorable. The best thing about the film, though, is its odd strains of brutality and ambiguity. Shortly after Carter’s arrival, we witness the Tharks killing off some of their newborns deemed unfit for survival; later, someone gets ripped in half in silhouette, and another sequence sees our hero briefly go mad with bloodthirstiness. As for the latter quality, the motivations of the mysterious Therns are never really made clear; they seem to exist simply to retool and steer conflicts around the universe for their own amusement. That uncertainty robs them somewhat of the contemptible quality necessary for memorable villainry, but it does add a welcome air of mysticism to the proceedings. (It also serves to complicate what might otherwise have been a straightforward some-wars-are-just moral.) Finally, there’s a writerly conceit that folds Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara) into the narrative, though that’s largely shunted aside in favor of the more familiar Mars-bound happenings.
Despite those divergences, this is all awfully familiar, and while Kitsch is admirably no-nonsense (while not being as much of a charisma vacuum as, say, Sam Worthington), much of the film’s more action-packed segments have that unmistakable air of going through the motions. The presence of an unlikely dog-like creature who saves the day on a few occasions serves to counter the otherworldliness of the setting, and Deja’s initial status as an independent asskicker gets undercut when she ultimately relies too much on Carter for the expected salvation. As a result, John Carter isn’t an Avatar-level waste of time and space, but it’s also not the bold new vision many sci-fi-adventure fans may have been hoping for since Star Wars fizzled out with the prequels. “Competent” is not the quality that makes lifelong devotees out of daydreaming fourteen-year-olds.