John Carter suffers from a few problems, most of which are not to the fault of the filmmakers, that end up hindering its quality. And despite those problems the movie almost surpasses expectations. Almost.
John Carter centers around its main character of the same name (played by Taylor Kitsch). Carter is a former Confederate soldier during the Civil War who, while searching for a cave of gold, ends up being transported to Mars. On Mars (or Barsoom) he ends up meeting alien-looking Martians (that act very much like Native American tribes) and humans that are warring for supremacy. It all sounds very simple but in actuality it is very complicated, which is the movie’s first problem.
There is a lot for the audience to learn at the outset and because of that the movie’s first half is bogged down and lacks focus. There is a lot of Mars exposition that comes in the opening, from Thab San (Dominic West aka Jimmy McNulty from The Wire) not only gaining a “mystical power” but then using it to take over Mars to Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) almost discovering the source of that power until her machine gets blown up by a Thern (which is a guy who is in a group that somehow controls the universe?) and she is then to be wed to Thab San so that her city of Helium will be spared San’s wrath. Yeah. That’s all exposition that doesn’t include anything about the movie’s main character and it all comes within the first 30 minutes. By the time John Carter gets to Mars it no longer feels like a movie about him.
The center of the movie, or at least Carter’s main plot, revolves around his desire to just get back to Earth. He of course wants no part of Mars. Unfortunately Carter’s internal struggle to take up a cause takes up the first half of the movie and is never really felt on screen. Whether that is the story’s fault or Kitsch’s it is hard to tell, probably a little of both, but it makes the first half of the movie seem uninteresting and dull. At no point does the audience ever feel that Carter won’t end up taking up Dejah’s cause. By the time the audience gets that moment where John Carter does have a chance to act selfishly and leave (about 2/3 into the movie), it has been a foregone conclusion for 45 minutes that there’s no way he’s going to leave her in the lurch, which ends up being a detriment.
The movie’s biggest problem isn’t that there’s too much exposition though. The biggest problem is that everything feels rushed. There is so much material to cover here that it almost feels like two movies were squashed down into one. Due to the amount of material there is never a time where the characters really feel as though they are making a connection with each other. Instead of being able to watch a bond form each scene almost has to push the story forward. As mentioned before, even though Carter is supposed to be distrusting of Dejah at first, it never really comes off that way. Even though he is using Dejah and Sola (his alien companion) to get to the machine temple there isn’t much growth between the characters shown. Instead there is more necessary backstory that must be told and the audience just has to believe that Carter changes his opinion on a dime.
Once Dejah, Sola and Carter reach the machine temple about half way through the movie shifts to a stronger focus but still feels rushed. There isn’t enough time allowed for scenes to breathe or for doubt to enter the audience’s mind. Instead the last half of the movie just hurtles from one plot point to another until finally the end is reached. Again, this has the feel of just too much material from the book needing to be included as opposed to the filmmaker’s short comings. It is just too much that is compressed down.
In spite of all the exposition the movie is still fun. This is Andrew Stanton’s (director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) live action directorial debut. And while there are some hiccups, Stanton come out as a more than capable director. Due to the chemistry between Kitsch and Collins it is fun to be with them (although there are not a lot of scenes in which they are together) and even Kitsch and Willem Defoe have pretty good chemistry on screen, even though Defoe plays the computer generated alien Tars Tarkas. When there isn’t too much backstory going on it is generally fun to be with these characters. Kitsch, in his big screen debut, is solid. He is at his best when he is a sort of charming ball-buster (ala Tim Riggins in the TV iteration of Friday Night Lights) but when he has to act legitimately mad it seems forced.
By the twist at the end (which is actually surprising) Carter has grown on you and you actually care what happens to him. When everything is revealed the story becomes all the more interesting. There is a good movie in there but the film hinders it from coming out because of all the exposition earlier on.
The special effects were, for the most part, pretty good. Some of the green screen work was iffy (especially when Carter jumps over the beasts in the aliens’ coliseum and when he and Matai Shang, aka Mark Strong, are riding a life through a city). Other than that though the aliens were very life like and well done, as were the space ships and the cities. For Pixar’s first foray into live action special effects it was a solid debut.
John Carter is an above average movie that felt like it could have been more had it not been condensed. . Had the awful Cowboys v Aliens not been released and been so poor before John Carter I do think the movie would have been a financial success. Unfortunately that was not meant to be and John Carter will end up being a fantastic failure when, in actuality, it probably should be far more successful.