The true tragedy of John Carter won't have anything to do with box office returns, critical scores, or the makings or unmakings of careers. The true tragedy of this decades-in-the-making sci-fi epic is that, in those ensuing decades, scores of ambitious filmmakers have already made versions of John Carter several times over, and done it far better than this well-meaning, if generally unremarkable production ever manages to.
By this, of course I am referring to the source material, author Edgar Rice Burroughs' genre-defining 1917 novel A Princess of Mars and its subsequent serialization, a work that has informed everything from Star Wars to Avatar, with a wide variety of perhaps slightly less culturally ubiquitous works in-between. A Princess of Mars has largely remained unadapted to film due to the sheer scope of Burroughs' vision, and the expense that would come along with it. The sad irony is that in this decade, filmmaking technology finally caught up Burroughs' ideas. Unfortunately, it took so long that the resulting film's cute, if utterly antiquated story manages to feel like a decades-behind also-ran. An also-ran that sits behind films that took their inspiration from the very same material decades earlier.
The titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a late 19th century millionaire, a former confederate soldier, and also apparently dead. Carter's nephew Edgar (maintaining the novel's "true story" quality) is summoned by Carter for unknown reasons, but arrives too late, discovering his uncle is dead, and that suddenly, his massive fortune and bizarre collection of unearthed artifacts are now his. Additionally, he has been bequeathed his uncle's personal journal, which tells a fantastical tale of warring races, political backstabbing, and a beautiful young princess--all of which exist on Mars.
One of the great failures of Disney's painfully inept marketing campaign for John Carter is that it fails to explain to the audience how a Southern gentleman of a cranky temperament managed to, you know, get his ass to Mars. Ironically, that's one of the better pieces of storytelling in John Carter. We first meet the hero as a grizzled prospector in the Arizona territory, circa 1881. He's been assailed by a louse of a Cavalry captain (Bryan Cranston, continuing his plot to be in every movie made between now and his eventual death) who wants him to help fight the Apaches. Things happen, suddenly there's a horse chase with angry Apaches, and Carter and the captain find themselves in a mysterious cave rife with strange markings. That cave becomes even stranger when a pale, bald-headed man suddenly materializes inside the cave, and after a brief fracas, leaves behind a medallion that transports Carter to a wholly new place.
Initially, Carter doesn't even realize he's in a new place. In one of John Carter's cleverer moments, the hero finds himself in a somewhat familiar-looking desert landscape, but somehow able to leap giant chunks of space as if he were just skipping along. The conceit here is, of course, that Carter's previous existence on a planet with a greater gravitational pull makes him Mars' equivalent of Superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and gifted with superhuman strength. He's not invincible, but he's close enough.
This makes Carter enough of an intriguing prospect/threat to capture the attention of the various warring tribes of Mars, which include the multi-armed, green-skinned sect of seemingly primitive tribal Martians, and at least two factions of human-like, reddish-skinned Martians, whose war with one another tends to spill out onto the rest of the planet. The more nefarious Zodangan group are evidently in bed with a league of Watcher-like aliens not originally of Mars, who for reasons more or less unexplained, seek to help Zodanga take over the more peaceful city state of Helium and bring about the end of Mars.
Exhausted yet? It's a lot of plot to take in, and regrettably, the script by Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews, and first-time live action feature director Andrew Stanton (who you may recall from his days at Pixar directing the likes of Finding Nemo and WALL-E) tries to dump a lot of the exposition required to get the audience up to speed on all of this in the early goings, leading to a dragging pace that often seems to move in fits and starts. A great five minute sequence will be followed by nearly 15 minutes of characters just explaining things in heavy-handed, melodramatic fashion. By the time the movie gets past its 90 minute mark, that need for exposition mostly goes away and Stanton goes a bit more wild with the CG-heavy set-piece battles, but the build-up to get there is so laborious that those sequences are robbed of a good chunk of their thrill.
Exposition-heavy sci-fi can, of course, work. The bigger issue is the method of delivery here. Stanton remains absolutely true to the classic, pulpy style of storytelling Burroughs employed, but that pulp factor causes many of John Carter's talkiest sequences to register as hammy and overwrought in a way that feels less reverent than severely outdated. Any time Carter and his would-be love interest, the science-loving princess of Helium played breathlessly by Lynn Collins, are forced to talk to each other while bullets and swords aren't flying around every which way, you'd swear you just walked into one of the Star Wars prequels. It's not that their performances are awful, but the dialogue is so specifically tuned to the style of early 20th century science fiction that every sentence feels like it just time traveled in from a bygone era.
Some will likely cite this as Stanton's desire to remain true to Burroughs' original vision, but there's no reason why the hokeyness of the dialogue and plot couldn't be more finely tuned to account for the advances in storytelling since, well, 1917. And it's not like Stanton and his screenwriters don't make changes elsewhere for the sake of making a cinematic John Carter more coherent. Characters and concepts that existed pretty much nowhere in Burroughs' series show up here, some for the better--such as the giant arena battle that makes for the film's most thrilling action sequence, due in no small part to the addition of giant, blind ape beasts--and some for the utterly inexplicable.
Take the omnipresent Watcher aliens, who seem to exist more as a potential antagonist for a sequel than anything particularly useful to this plot. What they do offer this particular movie, a sort of blue-hued magical energy source that they allow the head of the Zodangan (Dominic West, having a decent amount of fun with a barely-written villain character) to harness because he can be easily controlled, is little more than a corny, magical McGuffin. And while Mark Strong is an actor well-suited to playing cinematic assholes, his turn as the head of the ill-defined alien order is mostly just kind of dull.
I found myself using that word a lot when thinking about John Carter. For a movie that features a hero who can leap hundreds of feet in the air, who kills something close to an entire thundering horde of nasty, snarling aliens, and who has a tattooed babe of a princess more or less at his disposal, I was mystified by how generally underwhelming much of John Carter felt. The special effects are absolutely top notch, which you can especially see in the green-skinned Martians. Stanton's direction of the action scenes is solid, and he pulls a few unexpected moments of joy out of some fairly standard-sounding sequences. Even the 3D is fine, though generally unnecessary.
The problem is the storytelling. It's too lumbering, too plodding, and not nearly mindful enough of the audience's attention to ever come together. Even though it's only a good bit over two hours, John Carter feels bloated to the point of bursting, mostly due to its aggressive need to explain the entirety of a world's political history in a relatively short span of screen time. A more focused plot, better dialogue, and some serious reining in of the more cheesily pulpy elements of the source material unquestionably would have aided John Carter in becoming the entertaining franchise starter Disney clearly meant this movie to be. As it is, John Carter regrettably feels like a very shiny relic, dusted and polished to a glistening sheen in the hopes of looking fresh and new, but ultimately unable to sit among the best of modern sci-fi without looking sadly antiquated.