There are a hundred ways to describe John Carter
and there is no way to describe it at all. It has a little bit of Avatar
and a little bit of Dances with Wolves
. It has sprinklings of Clash of the Titans
with Star Wars Episode 1
mixed in. But despite all the remnants of the familiar, Andrew Stanton’s Carter
really is something from another world, on a class of its own. And it’s a class made up of delinquent children who can barely speak or act, walk or direct. Everyone involved is this project, I assume, attempted to drum up some heart or soul or at least some old-fashioned fun in the drawn-out, uneven-paced 131 minutes. The end result has barely any of that. Hell, I’m not even sure it has a plot.
Here’s what I made out of it. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who magically transports to Mars, only to find himself in the middle of warring factions. He escapes as prisoner, but he realizes his uncanny leaping ability and brute strength (and overexposed 10-pack abs. Hey! Mars is hot) — He realizes all these “gifts” can help him save a princess and a people. Fine. I’m not going to make fun of the narrative because it already makes fun of itself. But beyond that, plenty of absurd plots have gone on to find critical and mainstream success. Look at Inception (a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream) or Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson meets artists of yesteryear). It’s never the plot itself that dooms a movie. It’s the execution.
And it’s in that execution that is most frustrating. Stanton has been one of driving forces behind Disney Pixar’s success, writing and directing films like Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. Granted, all these films were animated. But good storytelling is good storytelling, whether it be animated or live-action, black-and-white or color, silent, or a talkie. In fact, Stanton’s most recent film WALL-E was considered by most as one of the most sophisticated films in the history of animation. This is why I was excited to see this film. This is why Disney granted John Carter with a loose $250 million budget. And this is why the final feature was all the more disappointing.
Ultimately, it’s the storytelling that was the most off-kilter. Maybe Stanton was too distracted by his own CGI characters that he forgot the basics to filmmaking. Beyond all the bright colors and sweeping landscape shots, the audience will get bored quickly. Forget what the marketers tell you. Shiny, new objects get old, real fast. We need to understand more of Carter’s past. His brief, cloudy flashbacks do not offer enough clarity. We want to sympathize with the native people of Mars. A voiceover does not suffice. We deserve to be treated as an audience of intellect. Beyond the wow (there’s not many anyway), we need to know the more important questions of why or how.
Maybe I was wrong in my talent evaluation all along, and not just about Stanton. If I didn’t know any better, I thought the casting director pulled men and women off the street of Los Angeles. But I do know better. Kitsch was a mainstay in one of the finest television series in recent history, Friday Night Lights. Dominic West was a lead actor in arguably the finest television series of all time, The Wire. Add in fantastic character actors — Thomas Haden Church, Willem Defoe, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston — and this should have been at the very least a showcase for acting. Instead, the characters were skin-deep and the acting didn’t help.
That’s the story of John Carter — could’ve should’ve would’ve. Visionary director. Check. Capable actors. Check. A healthy budget. Check. But as they say in sports, that’s why you play the game. And in this case, that’s you they make the movie. Unfortunately for me, I had to watch said movie. Don’t make the same mistake.