John Carter didn’t show up without baggage. That’s a nice way to say that for months, people have been talking more about the story (and money) around the movie than about the movie itself — a tactic that sometimes works out just fine (hello, Titantic) and sometimes doesn’t. When The New York Times is making Ishtar references while Monday-morning quarterbacking a film’s weekend take, it’s relatively safe to assume the pre-release gossip hits home.
But John Carter — no longer John Carter of Mars, which was the manned-up version of A Princess of Mars, the name of the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale on which the film is based — will slip right through the cracks precisely because it’s neither Ishtar nor Titanic. Too science-fictiony to play to a mainstream audience and too mainstream to develop a real genre fanbase, JC is a film that tried to have it both ways and landed smack in cultural nowheresville.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, of Friday Night Lights), a Confederate soldier and excellent fighter, is hunting gold in Arizona when a peculiar encounter sends him to a different dry landscape: the rugged brown surface of Mars, called Barsoom by its natives. Barsoom is in the middle of its own civil war, which might be notably relevant for a Confederate solider — but perhaps that relevance was lost in a previous draft of the screenplay. On Mars, Carter befriends/impresses a four-armed and well-animated animated species, the Tharks, and makes the acquaintance of a wise warrior princess, Dejah Thoris (a very earnest Lynn Collins). Bad, superpowered fellows led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) have been mucking about in Mars’ conflicts, and Carter’s arrival — and subsequent side-choosing — changes everything. Naturally.
John Carter’s charms include John’s initial exploration of Mars, which he does by leaps and bounds once he gets used to the different gravity; a space-dog named Woola that wins over everyone whose heart is not yet turned to cynical stone; the airships of Barsoom, which look like glittering metal dragonflies; and every moment in which Kitsch, who broods like nobody’s business, cracks a smile.
That smile is all too rare in the film, which slowly becomes a mishmash of underwritten characters, underdeveloped notions and nicely executed effects. Too much stuff is crammed into JC’s plot: Dejah is supposed to marry the human bad guy, Sab Than (Dominic West)! There’s unrest among the Tharks! Sab Than has a cool, evil, mobile city! There’s also a nifty magical power source called the Ninth Ray that you’ll just have to accept for whatever it is (save your questions about the other eight rays for Wikipedia).
John Carter would like to have big ideas — something about finding where you belong and fighting for what’s right, not hogging the planet and not abusing power — but the movie leaves no room for them. You can still have fun without a lot of thoughtfulness, of course, but with its frequently too-ponderous tone, John Carter makes even that complicated.