Movie Reviews – John Carter

Originally posted 6-21-2012

Adaptation from book to film has a checkered history at best. For every soaring success, such as The Green Mile, there is a crushing failure, such as the unmitigated travesty of the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow version of Great Expectations. I’ll grant you that The Green Mile had an edge with the virtually unassailable power of Tom Hanks to draw an audience, but it went deeper than that. Director Frank Darabont captured the oddly hopeful spirit of a novel set on death row and used it to perform an alchemical transformation that gave us an extraordinary film. So where does the John Carter adaptation fall on the scale between soaring success and unmitigated travesty? It sits somewhere in the middle.

This is a bit shocking, since director Andrew Stanton is the man that both wrote and directed the mega-hits Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Both of those films delivered perfect pacing with just the right amount of sentiment mixed in to drive home the messages of transcendent love in Wall-E and family in Finding Nemo. Perhaps it was the transition from animated film to live action, but a number of things broke down in the transition from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels to the finished John Carter film.

To begin with, the titular hero of the film, played by Taylor Kitsch, diverges in inexplicable ways from the John Carter of the novels. While both are Civil War veterans and quasi-immortal, neither ages, the filmic version is portrayed as being an unenthusiastic combatant that considers war shameful and says that he is not for hire. The Carter of the novels was not only an enthusiastic warrior, but took great pride in his prowess and considered war to be his calling in life. It is central to who he is as a character. Perhaps Stanton felt a more faithful portrayal would make Carter too unsympathetic, but it forced changes to the material that seemed to strip away much of what made the Barsoom novels fun to read.

For example, the entire first Barsoom novel focused on the complex and violent relations between three warring nations on Mars. There was more than enough there to satisfy any science fiction fan: alien creatures, epic battles, and a weird fusion of archaic and futuristic technologies. Rather than adapt this novel, Stanton chose to introduce elements from the second and third Barsoom novels, including a fourth group of aliens that he took so many liberties with that they are nearly unrecognizable save for the name. While Stanton’s enthusiasm for the books shows through, the attempt to cram all of these bits and pieces, along with extensive changes to the core material, left the film something of a muddle.

The pacing is erratic at best and drags for much of the first hour, where we are given an extremely lengthy introduction to the Carter character. While character building is good, Carter is a fairly one-dimensional character. The introduction to him could have been done just as easily, and probably more effectively, in half the time. The action picks up after the first hour, but comes and goes unpredictably, never really establishing the building tension that a good, action-based film requires.

The dialogue throughout the film is painfully weak. Much of this can laid at the feet of Burroughs himself, who wrote dreadfully stilted dialogue, but Stanton and the rest of the scriptwriting team has to take some blame for not simply rewriting the dialogue to sound a little more natural.

Where John Carter does shine is in the visual effects department. Though the film has taken some criticism for the jumping scenes, all in all it is visually stunning. The Martian landscape is rendered in vibrant colors and the airship sequences are unbelievably good. The CGI rendered Tharks, a multi-armed, green, Martian species are convincing enough that I did not immediately damn them to burn in the same hell as Jar Jar Binks.

The cast did what they could with the material they had. Taylor Kitsch gives an honest attempt at bringing the Carter character to life, but is hamstrung both by the limits of the script and the apparent limits of his experience. Kitsch has yet to really master conveying the inner world of a character without the aid of dialogue, which a character like Carter needs onscreen. The beautiful Lynn Collins, portraying the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris, works hard to bring some depth to a character that was originally written solely to be an object for John Carter to save. Willem Dafoe lends his voice to the Thark leader Tars Tarkas and gives what was probably the best performance of the film. Dominic West and Mark Strong play the villains of the tale and deliver their stock bad guy dialogue with what looks to be a bit of glee.

Overall, the film was too long and the story was too convoluted to create a strong narrative thread that could carry the viewer through. It was, however, a visually gorgeous film and probably worth sitting through just to see how the visuals play out. The action sequences were acceptably interesting to watch. While I probably wouldn’t buy this one, I would certainly rent it to watch once.

My Score: 2.5 stars