Dir: Andrew Stanton
Timing is everything. John Carter was conceived 100 years ago by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. In the time since, while Carter himself has not made the jump to the silver screen, his influence appears to have been felt right across the sci-fi genre, with the terrible consequence that the leader now looks like the follower, the innovator like the thief.
That, while it may not help, is not the whole story as to why this is a bad movie. Often I can get quite animated, quite irritated, by bad films (you may have noticed), but not this time, because while John Carter may be bad it's not in any way interestingly bad. In fact, it's just really, really dull.
The story is really two pronged. First John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported from Earth in the 1890's to Barsoom (Mars), and once there he finds himself becoming a pawn between three warring factions on the red planet and falling in love with the (reassuringly humanoid) Princess of one of those factions (the one with the blue banners, don't ask me, or indeed the script, for more details than that). Both of these things should feel urgent and investable, hell, the war is basically the beginning of the end of the world as far as Barsoom is concerned, and yet the whole film still feels low stakes.
Much of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of a tin eared and tedious script that almost collapses under the weight of exposition and lists of increasingly silly names, which, time and time again are chosen over little things like characterisation. That issue is felt most pressingly with Carter himself; he's the centre of the film and yet there's really nothing to him, and an uninteresting hero is one it's a struggle to get behind, and that is death for a film like this.
There's a strange imbalance in the casting. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are front and centre as the main 'human' figures in the film, and yet they both give notably poor performances. Kitsch is wooden and near expressionless, while Collins is incredibly affected, using a deep, almost purring, voice that sounds hilariously unnatural and distracting, which is a shame because, at least until the last reel, Dejah Thoris is a reasonably strong and independent female character, but Collins is really terrible in the part, and has little chemistry with Kitsch. On the other side of the coin, the film's better actors are almost all buried under piles of pixels, their performances struggling to break through. This is especially true of Samantha Morton, who has seldom been this anonymous before The rest of the cast seem to be cashing their cheques; Mark Strong, doing his 343rd bald villain of the last five years, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, who seems to struggle to decide whether to ham it up or not, all struggle to lift John Carter out of the plodding tedium into which it repeatedly falls.
Despite having a personal love for the books and their lead character, co-writer/director Andrew Stanton fails to translate it to the audience. At a character and story level he gives us little to invest in, and the storytelling itself is just broken, with a framing device, an opening voiceover and reams of other expostition all failing to bring the world of Barsoom to life. On the visual side the film continues to disappoint. It doesn't look bad, but it does look like any number of other sci-fi movies and computer games. There is so little visual invention here, the design all feels derivative from vehicles (the speeder bike type vehicles even SOUND like they've been ripped off from Star Wars) to creatures, even down to small production design items like glyphs and tattoos. It feels as though Stanton and his team have created not a new but a patchwork world. The prevalence of digital effects, the dodgy acting and the endless exposition just add to the disappointment, and in the end John Carter feels as much like a cut scene from a computer game as it does a movie.
I'm not terribly annoyed about John Carter. It's not bad in the ramapagingly dreadful, offensive way that Sucker Punch was, and I don't want to choke the life out of the characters like I did in The Future, John Carter is just dull. It's a fart of a movie: it stinks for a while, but then it's gone, and just like that, you forget it was ever there.