Tarzan of Mars
John Carter is about 100 years old. The creation of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, he predates even Tarzan, another Burroughs' creation, and is set in the planet of Mars, or Barsoom in Burroughs-speak in what would feature an early planetary romance, complete with fantasy, swords and sorcery. At least that's what's on the plate in the series of books that helped inspire countless of other writers and other sci-fi fantasy stories both in print, and film. So in essence there isn't much that would surprise you in the original source material that featured Burrough's fictional self as well (played by Daryl Sabara), and Andrew Stanton's adaptation is fairly lacklustre from plot to action sequence, that a wave of familiarity will sweep your consciousness as you try to tune into the strange civilizations thrust upon you.
Predominantly based on the book "A Princess of Mars", the narrative adapted by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and even Michael Chabon failed to ignite that sense of swashbuckling adventure involving a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War, our titular hero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who found himself inexplicably transported to Mars when out and about his second career of gold prospecting in Virginia. Throw in what you will from Dances with Wolves to Avatar involving being that proverbial fish out of water, and you get what the first hour is all about. Picked up by green skinned Martians with six limbs known as the Tharks, John is enslaved to fight for the Tharks given his super-human abilities scientifically blessed upon him due to Mar's lesser gravity, and soon rises to become one of their folk heroes, christened Dotar Sojat.
But that's not before getting himself tripped up in the civil war between the red skinned humanoid Martians from Helium and Zodanga, and falling in love with the scantily clad princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who's forced into marriage by her father to their enemies in order to see a truce. With their flying machines and intra-planetary chase, you'd wonder where George Lucas would have gotten his inspiration for the opening of A New Hope, or vice versa in how these characters got introduced. And when one gets embroiled in someone else's war, what more developing the hots for a princess who holds the key to one's return home, you know for a fact that trouble will come knocking in less time the planet orbits around the sun.
Andrew Stanton, whose previous films were the Pixar animated features Finding Nemo and Wall.E, may be inspired by fellow colleague Brad Bird's successful live action venture with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and embarked on his own franchise-potential with this live action effort. However, it's a whole new different ball game that Stanton got himself into, and will find that pacing is so key to a film, given the huge sag in the middle, unable to keep consistent pace to what had already been set up. Trust me, by then you wouldn't even begin to bother who's fighting who, who's right or wrong, and just what's going on, given a load of mumbo-jumbo just forced down your throat with very scant details provided (you'll be better off reading Burroughs' book instead). John Carter gets everywhere and couldn't decide many times whether to play it straight, or comical. It couldn't decide whether to focus on the drama, or become that special effects extravaganza, resulting in an effects film that didn't have anything to wow, and at best was derivative.
Worse of all, John Carter didn't have direction. Objectives were scattered - one minute he's dead set on wanting to go home, while the next got persuaded in less than convincing terms to stay and interfere with the inhabitants livelihood. Here the story goes all The Adjustment Bureau in having what could be their predecessor Watchmen type headed by Matai Shang played by Mark Strong (surely his contract must have stated he must be in all blockbuster franchise potential as the key villain; he's so overused that he's getting stereotypically boring already) being that almighty Deux Ex Machina ensuring Fate gets played out like it should. And to try and force in a little romantic interlude with a backstory from Earth, didn't make the story any more emotionally appealing.
The action sequences also couldn't have been any more less interesting. Sure, John Carter exhibits space age Tarzan capabilities without the need of a vine, and has the charisma to charm all native inhabitants to be king of the Mars jungle, but alas there's nothing that will put you at the edge of your seat. Perhaps it's that century old tale that got ripped by many others already, that the filmmakers fell into the been-there-done-that pit trap and failed to ignite the big screen with originality. From space battles to Prince of Persia type battles, this film could have benefited from more creativity, especially with an ensemble cast assembled with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Domic West, Bryan Cranston, and the list goes on.
What saved the movie instead was Edgar Rice Burroughs the writer and creator himself, given the literary device that he had used to tell the story. This device of having the novelized Burroughs possessing the manuscript passed onto him by John Carter, was the only saving grace of the film, giving it a thrilling finale that thankfully the filmmakers decided to keep, without which it will lack a crescendo and fall flat on its face. It's certainly primed for a franchise given the wealth of stories from the source material, but unless it promises a much better effort put in for subsequent films, John Carter will join the ranks of many literary fantasy translations for the big screens and fail to lift off.
And should you bother with the 3D? No, because post conversion 3D always feels like a short cut that never delivers, and John Carter boasts no scenes that will justify those glasses and extra bucks for a ticket.