Taylor Kitsch is Captain John Carter, a Civil War veteran who after the war ends, begins a prospecting career in the hills of Arizona. We’re told that Carter is highly skilled in swordfighting and fisticuffs. What he does lack is the ability to grow facial hair competently. His beard is so bad it makes my friend Elliot’s look like Brian Wilson from the San Francisco Giants.
After the war, Carter stumbles upon a cave lined in gold. A chance meeting with an odd bald dude results in our hero being catapulted across space, landing on the planet Mars. After a brief introduction to the planet’s lesser gravity, we meet some four-armed green aliens called Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Tharks take Carter prisoner, locking him away in the most lax jail this side of Saturn, before his unavoidable escape and insertion into his once captors tribe. They explain to him that Mars is actually called Barsoom, and that resources on this planet are quickly dwindling. Oh, and he befriends a six-legged reptile bulldog.
Director Andrew Stanton assumes a lot–mainly that his entire audience knows what the hell is going on at all times. Carter is adapted from author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel ‘A Princess of Mars’ from 1917. Burroughs wove a pretty intricate tale of oddly named characters, and alien-looking creatures. Sadly Stanton glosses over a majority of seemingly important plot points that would drive the story. Early on, Sab Than (Dominic West) is pillaging a flying ship. You see, he is from Zodanga (a region of Barsoom), and his people are feuding with rival nation Helium. There’s no explanation as to why he wants to take control of the neighbouring lands (living in Saskatchewan would be more appealing); I suppose he’s just a conqueror, trying to pay his bills like the rest of us.
Even more frustrating is when Matai Shang (Mark Strong. Always the villain) and his minions (those odd bald dudes I was telling you about) appear out of nowhere (like they do) and deliver an all-powerful weapon made from blue, web energy to the war monger. Shang hails from a god-like race of entities called the Holy Therns, whose job it is to direct fate on its natural course (not unlike the Adjustment Bureau–though without the cool hats). Why these beings decide to hand over an energy blast more devastating than Sub-Zero’s finishing move is beyond me, but, once more with feeling! Nothing. Is. Ever. Explained.
Eventually Carter meets Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, played by Lynn Collins. Carter is skeptical about helping Thoris, wanting more to return to his home planet and reclaim the stash of precious metal he located. The main issue I had with Carter’s reluctance was that Dejah looks like this and this. If the new-age Princess Leia with red tattoos all over her body asks you for assistance, you jump at the idea–especially if you have the ability to leap multiple football fields at a time.
There was a questionable marketing campaign set forth. From the trailers to the featurettes, it never really seemed like Stanton and company knew what direction to pump their film. Is it intergalactic western? Epic lovestory? Alien invasion? There are fragments of each, but the pieces don’t fit together to form any sort of congruency. They couldn’t even get the topography of the planet right. The action of course takes place on Mars; we’re told by a front credit voiceover that it’s called the “red planet”–shit, even the poster for the film is doused in fire-engine red. Yet, everyone’s just walking around in a boring, brown sandbox, breathing in normal air (thanks Arnold!).
It’s disappointing that Stanton whiffed so badly on this, being that he was the man behind WALL-E and Finding Nemo, two massive hits that John Carter himself couldn’t spring high enough to reach. In terms of the two leads, Collins should be admired for her work. Dejah Thoris is a beautiful creature, and her fight to salvage her waning kingdom is an admirable one. Kitsch on the other hand never seems believable in what could have been an iconic role. He got his break on television’s ‘Friday Night Lights’ playing a drunk doofus who fought a lot and snagged a ton of women. His character in FNL, Riggins, and Carter are long-lost, identical twins. Carter provides some pulpy goodness scattered about, but these moments sadly are few and far between. Too many times it feels necessary to have read an almost hundred-year old book to keep up with the many floating tangents. The film ends on a cliffhanger; a sequel will be greenlit if good reviews and returns come pouring in. The way things are looking though, you’d have a better chance of learning Martian than seeing that happen.
Production notes: Directed by Andrew Stanton; Produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson, Lindsey Collins; Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon; Based on the work ‘A Princess of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs; Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston