For some reason, humans have long chosen Mars as the ideal setting for science fiction tales. Something about the angry red planet has long been a source of fascination, perhaps due to early scientific speculation on the possibility of Martian life or simply as a result of its bright, alien appearance. From C.S. Lewis to Cowboy Bebop, we’ve seen every possible Martian tale. But before all this was John Carter of Mars. A run of 11 novels originally written by Edgar Rice Burroughs nearly 100 years ago, the John Carter series forms the foundation for much of modern sci-fi. After all, both George Lucas and James Cameron have cited John Carter as an inspiration for their work. It’s a wonder Hollywood took this long to make a film adaptation.
And therein lies the source of John Carter’s problems. When Burroughs first penned the novels, science fiction was still in its infancy. Today’s clichés and tired archetypes were not yet in place — in fact, Burroughs invented a fair number of them. So Disney’s big-budget adaptation — complete with gold-encrusted armor and a CG lizard-dog — seems a little, well, archaic. Don’t get me wrong; adapting older fiction for cinema is not always a bad idea. But letting Disney force a weak script and wooden acting on a genre classic definitely is.
John Carter opens on Mars, in the middle of an airborne battle between two groups of humanoid Martians, dressed bizarrely like blue versions of the ancient Greeks. From there, we suddenly leap to 1881 New York and then to Civil War-era Arizona before we finally meet our protagonist. And even at that point, we’re still not clear how these things connect. It is not until Carter is suddenly transported to Mars that the film shows any semblance of a plot. In all, it takes nearly an hour for John Carter to establish all the characters and the overarching plot line. It’s a screenplay that breaks nearly every rule of screenwriting — and not in an avant-garde, experimental sort of way. Instead, shallow characters and incomprehensible story arcs leave the audience wondering what the hell is going on.
The one-dimensional and clichéd characters are certainly not salvaged by their actors. You know that legendary scene in Revenge of the Sith, where Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen seem more like wooden planks than people? John Carter is like 137 minutes of that. As Carter, Taylor Kitsch presents us with a protagonist apparently devoid of a personality. All Kitsch can bring to Carter, it seems, is a shadow of heroic Western stoicism and a set of decent pecs — which are inexplicably forced into a sexy leather harness as soon as he sets foot on Mars. Similarly, Lynn Collins adds little more to Martian princess Dejah than a pretty face and a painful couple of stock one-liners.
John Carter does, however, hit a few high notes. Carter’s first steps on Mars are particularly gratifying for we geeks in the audience; watching him leap dozens of feet in the air across the surface of an unknown planet is an envy-inducing delight. And then there’s Woola, the aforementioned lizard-dog, who arguably offers the most sympathetic performance in the film. Loyal to Carter and corny to the point of genuine charm, Woola serves as both Carter’s and the audience’s emotional crutch. But Woola is not the only successful special effect. At times, the Martian landscape is both comfortingly familiar — thanks, Utah! — and astoundingly alien.
The film additionally triumphs when the characters finally stop, you know, talking and get back to the fighting. The battles manage to be both impressive and engaging, while still avoiding the exhausting length of some of Hollywood’s more epic scenes (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). In these, and in many of the other classic-fantasy moments, John Carter succeeds, but it’s not enough to save the film. In the hands of a more nuanced writer, even the acting might have been forgivable. What truly dooms John Carter is its failure to adapt Burroughs’ novels for the modern day. Many of its plot points worked well in turn-of the century fiction, but director Andrew Stanton failed to translate them for a 21st century audience. Uneven pacing, stock characters, convoluted plot lines — these are things we simply cannot overlook.