JOHN CARTER. The story half of Hollywood ripped off from
Without this story, we wouldn’t have had the chance to discover the adventures of legendary characters like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, or even Indiana Jones and James Cameron’s Na’vi. However, John Carter himself, the main protagonist of the Martian saga, never had the opportunity to make it to the big screen before, unlike Burroughs’ more famous creation, Tarzan, whose adventures have accompanied us on the big screen since the early days of cinema. However, exactly one hundred years after its debut, the Civil War veteran lost on the red planet got the chance to appear on the big screen. And what a chance it was—with a budget estimated at $250 million, under the wing of Disney, and with Oscar-winning Andrew Stanton in the director’s chair. Did the hero defend his rightful place on the pop culture map in times when practically everything he had to offer had already been adapted in various ways?
John Carter ‘s plot is maximally classic science fiction from the beginning of the century. The main character mysteriously transports from Earth to Mars, where, surprisingly, he can breathe, and the atmospheric and gravitational conditions enhance his physical attributes, allowing him to jump several meters and knock out opponents several times larger than himself with a single blow. He falls into the captivity of the green-skinned Tharks and soon becomes entangled in the war between the cities of Zodanga and Helium, where the red-skinned inhabitants of Barsoom (as Mars is called by the natives) live. During his adventures, he also encounters the beautiful Martian princess, Dejah Thoris. Additionally, dark forces lurk in the background, sinisterly interested in the sandy planet.
In terms of the plot, there is nothing new John Carter. There’s romance, a war between warring sides (one of which is crystal clear, and the other is evil to the core), and tons of pathos-laden lines delivered with serious expressions. The screenplay consists of elements we know from hundreds of other films in the new adventure genre. Of course, I am aware that Carter’s book adventures initiated this trend, but on the silver screen, the hero is a hundred years late and currently has nothing new to offer the audience. If we are not aware of the film’s lineage, it appears to us as an average copy of Star Wars or another Avatar. The poorly executed script does not help the film in presenting a schematic story, filling it with inflated lines and stale dialogues. Too often, prolonged conversations are conducted here, skillfully destroying the dynamics of the entire film. Moreover, exchanges between characters are mostly continuous exposition—throwing around names of places, gods, characters—the information overload does not allow the audience to immerse themselves in the presented world because, for most of the time, the viewer feels like attending an academic lecture rather than being in the midst of a cosmic war. I have no idea why they tried to clumsily insert elements from two subsequent parts of the saga into the first book, which was a ready-made script for a solid film. The action, which should be an integral part of this type of film, suffers as a result.
The technical side of John Carter looks good, but there is no way to feel the huge budget. The world itself is empty, everywhere we see sand and rocks—this is what Mars looks like, and yet the book version presented us with descriptions of extraordinary cities, alien art, or forests where strange creatures roamed. For the most part, it is challenging to distinguish Barsoom from any ordinary western prairie. Even the character costumes are borrowed from typical sword and sandal cinema. Everything is too hermetic. On the positive side, the computer effects are impressive – especially the design and motion capture of the Tharks, who are a much more interesting race (both visually and in terms of behavior) than James Cameron’s Na’vi. When the action picks up, it can pleasantly surprise a few times—however, it is murdered by subsequent long exposition scenes, repeating patterns (I think even Michael Jordan did not make as many jumps in his entire NBA career as John Carter does during the over two-hour screening), and absurd solutions, culminating in a scene of exaggerated slaughter interrupted by constant body-dissecting flashbacks. Additionally, the completely unnecessary 3D completely ruins the film, not supporting the action in any way, only darkening the image. On the other hand, the film deserves credit for a substantial dose of bloody scenes (for a Disney film), even if the blood has a blue hue here.
The protagonist characters of John Carter are played correctly. Taylor Kitsch in the main role, with a constant rasp reminiscent of Clint Eastwood and a tired look, performs quite well in action scenes. However, he lacks even a bit of charisma, which actors like Chris Hemsworth in Thor or even Daniel Craig in average films like Cowboys & Aliens possess. Lynn Collins is stunning as Dejah Thoris, but like her partner, she is stuck in patterns and forced to deliver inflated dialogues. There is no playfulness with the characters and general chemistry between them, as seen in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, for example. The romance between Carter and Dejah in the book was quite awkward, and bringing it to the language of film did not ignite any spark. Among the positive characters, it’s worth mentioning Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkas, whose character, despite being stripped of the fantastic revenge subplot from the book, still captures attention; Kantos Kan – a marginalized but charismatic presentation by James Purefoy, who could replace Kitsch in the protagonist role; and Woola – the Martian dog and defender of the main character, who steals every scene in the film with his charm. Disney will undoubtedly profit from merchandise in this case.
A separate paragraph is due to “the villains,” who are presented terribly superficially. Dominic West has a role almost as terrible as in Punisher: War Zone, and all he lacks to become a monument to kitschy villainy is a mustache to twirl. He is adeptly seconded by Mark Strong, who, presented in the first scene as an all-powerful being, is skillfully broken down into small pieces during the film—to ultimately become his parody.
Nothing in the film can fully satisfy, making the whole picture dreadfully boring for long moments. Humor is repeating one joke ad nauseam. The actors are simply solid and restrained by a weak screenplay, and those whose names are associated with negative characters must fight not only with John Carter but also with frighteningly “ossified” and schematic roles. Additionally, there is too little action for an adventure film and not much emotion in the romantic subplot. The film lacks a considerable dose of love, a desire for innovation. Ultimately, the picture is a technically beautiful shell—nothing more than an empty shell deprived of the core of the red planet. Stanton’s work is not a bad film, but painfully archaic and average, and mediocrity is the worst thing that can happen to a film that is supposed to start a profitable series. You can go see John Carter, but a better idea would be simply another viewing of the classic Star Wars, which developed Burroughs’ ideas in a much more interesting way.