By Jessica Delfanti | March 9, 2012
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton
For a genre that lends itself so thoroughly to clunkiness and over-exaggeration, the epic requires a certain delicacy to pull off successfully. Not surprisingly, very few filmmakers understand this, and as a result end up creating overproduced, terribly written films like Andrew Stanton’s John Carter.
John Carter focuses on Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a civil war veteran that is mysteriously transported to Mars and compelled by the princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) to help her and her people against the determinedly “bad guy” Sab Than (played with relish by Dominic West). Cue scenes of exaggerated Disney “violence,” some ridiculously strung together clothing items (the costume designers were clearly tasked with making actors as naked as possible while still maintaining the PG-13 rating), and overblown exposition about the fate of Mars.
Stanton, a well-respected voice actor, director, writer, and producer famous for his work on Pixar titles, was a promising name attached to John Carter. Through reputation, his connection to the film as screenwriter and director seemed to indicate that some of the Pixar tone would carry over: soft edges, good humor, and a clear narrative. Instead, the film is a mess of a story, with Carter oscillating between insisting that his only desire in life is to return to his “cave of gold” and sending lascivious looks in Dejah’s direction.
The hero’s decisions are rarely supported by any plot choices, and the political struggle at the center of the story is unclear; no matter how many times the characters express the dire threat of Sab Than’s invasion, it is not entirely clear why his invasion is so awful. We are asked to put faith in his potential for villainy based solely on being told he is the “bad guy,” and as a result he feels impotent.
It is almost unfair to blame the writers too severely for the mess of a script that they created. With a character that was originally created by Edgar Rice Burroughs a hundred years ago and has appeared in dozens of renditions since, Carter comes with a lot of baggage. However, the dialogue feels like fan fiction: overly dramatic, overly expository, with no plot or character development to back it up.
In the lead role, Kitsch fails to deliver the magnetism and sense of power necessary for a hero role. The same middle of the road handsomeness that made him an ideal candidate for a role on Friday Night Lights’ football drama gives him a boyish uncertainty as the would-be assertive Carter. His most successful scenes are those where he feigns stupidity or participates in slightly slapstick comedy, as when he attempts to gain control over the difference in gravity on Mars.
Opposite of Kitsch, Collins is the film’s weakest link. She plays the princess with a vacant stare, expressionless. While she flings her arms around, stomps, runs, and over pronounces every word so that she sounds frequently like an instructional video narrator, she appears to have forgotten how to use her facial muscles.
It should be noted that while so many of the major elements of the film fail, Stanton’s project is marvelous in several of the technical categories. The animation on the alien Tharks is rendered beautifully. Admittedly, some scenes are overly sweeping and give the impression of a shallow landscape, but for the most part the art aesthetic of the film is attractive and very polished. With its clean (if a bit overblown) effects and confident art direction, John Carter may not be a good film, but it certain is a pretty one.
In cinema based on spectacle, it may be too tempting to max out every aspect. However, filmmakers need to learn how to scale back, to implement taste tests for content, and to remember that the best epics are built on foundations of great stories. Maybe then a film like John Carter will be worth seeing.