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Review: 'John Carter' Is One Long, Muddled, Uninvolving Flashback Made To Set Up A Sequel

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
March 6, 2012 7:39 AM
30 Comments
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Arriving in theaters on a wave of press that has included much chatter about the film's budget, its reshoots and the expectations Disney has on the project, "John Carter" is not your ordinary tentpole in more ways than one. Rarely do films meet this kind of scrutiny on the way to the theater, but given the years in development this project has been through, and the new do-or-die, go big or go home ethos that Disney currently embraces, it was perhaps inevitable. But when the lights go down, the 3D glasses go on and the movie starts, it's all about what's on the screen and unfortunately for the studio and director Andrew Stanton, "John Carter" is a mess. Strangely uninvolving and needlessly convoluted, "John Carter" spends over two hours making the case for being a franchise, without ever really becoming a movie.

The film's problems are apparent right from the opening frame, where a dry, expository voiceover greets us with a marble mouthed explanation that Mars is indeed inhabited, and in the midst of some of kind of power struggle, with the leader of Zodanga stripping the planet of its resources while the heads of Helium are trying to stop them. We are then plunged immediately into a spaceship battle between two groups of anonymous fighters, one in red capes and another in blue capes, but the ultimate result is that McNulty from "The Wire" is given the gift of some kind Venom-like blue weapon thing that wraps around his forearm, from a mysterious, baldheaded Mark Strong in a shiny robe. The trade off being that McNulty now has a badass weapon in exchange for letting Strong pull the strings of power behind him. And then we jump back to the post-Civil War era on Earth, where we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who evades a man who is following him, sends a telegram to his nephew and then dies. His nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (eyeroll) arrives, and is told that he is the recipient of John Carter's vast wealth, and is given a for-your-eyes-only journal to read, penned by his uncle. And thus begins the flashback, which lasts nearly the entire length of the movie, that explains what happened to John Carter and how he winds up on Mars.

As if the power struggle between Zodanga and Helium isn't enough, when John Carter lands on the red planet, he winds up being a prisoner/pawn in another tug-of-war between battling leaders of the Tharks, some very tall, thin, four armed green aliens with tusks. But through an elaborate set of circumstances, John Carter escapes from the Tharks, gains the loyalty of an alien dog, crosses paths with Dejah (Lynn Collins), the princess of Helium and two more times in the first hour, has what's going on in the plot explained to him to by other characters. The long and short of it is that Dejah is being sold off into marriage with McNulty to save her people and planet from destruction, while John Carter kind of doesn't give a shit and just wants to get home.

But here is where the main issue with "John Carter" crops up -- if John Carter cares little for the fate of Mars, it's hard for the audience to be all that invested. Implausibly, it takes John Carter nearly half the movie before Dejah clues him in that he's not lost in some weird part of the Arizona desert while prospecting for gold, but that he's on Mars. We suppose the space ships, aliens and ability to defy gravity (dude can jump really high) didn't tip him off. Once he realizes this, it makes his initial endeavor to find a medallion that will allow him to transport back home all the more desperate. He enjoins Dejah to help him, and she uses the opportunity to both deceive him and explain (again) the whole story of Zodanga and Helium, basically doing everything in her power to convince John Carter to help her. Eventually, and just in time for the last third of the movie, John Carter decides that he will help her out after all. But whether he stays or goes, the audience can't be made to care either way. Back on Earth he was a wanted man, haunted by grief over the loss of his wife and child, living a largely solitary life in pursuit of treasure. Here on Mars, he has a greater purpose, and we're led to believe that he suddenly cares for Dejah, but considering they spend most of the film unable to trust each other, it's a hard sell.  As for Dejah, who is a professor of science (or something) in addition to being princess, she starts off the movie having nearly found the elusive "ninth ray" (don't ask) that powers the weapon McNulty has been given by Mark Strong, who we learn is Holy Thern, some sort of superbeing who can shapeshift and teleport at will and wields the ultimate power on Barsoom (what the Martians call Mars, though we suppose this means they're Barsoomians). 

For all the talk of retooling the film, and making it the best it can be, it's particularly galling just how poorly and lazily structured the screenplay really is. John Carter doesn't actually learn that Mark Strong is the villain until nearly the end of the film. How? Strong captures him, and using the most tired cliché possible, begins to explain in detail his past, who he is and what he plans to do with Mars instead of just killing him. Of course, John Carter manages to escape in time -- but it gets even worse. **SPOILERS BEGIN** Beholden to give Disney a franchise, and seemingly lacking in any imagination, the screenwriters allow Mark Strong to evade death in the final moments of the movie, not only completely deflating the ending, but also rendering pretty much everything that happened in the preceeding two hours essentially pointless.**SPOILERS END**  "John Carter" winds up being a movie about a man who goes to Mars to stop a wedding and kiss a woman he barely tolerated for half the movie, all while ensuring that the barn door is left wide open for a sequel, even if it means severely compromising the conclusion.

And even the usually imaginative Andrew Stanton seems adrift in "John Carter." The director, who with his Pixar films "A Bug's Life," "Finding Nemo" and especially "Wall-E" showed a deft, energetic hand at creating truly memorable, inventive sequences, seems completely flummoxed with having to do the same thing with CGI and actual humans. Tentpoles these days usually have at least one sizzle setpiece -- think the Burj Khalifa sequence in 'Ghost Protocol' or the skydiving section or office tower collapse in 'Dark Of The Moon' -- that really allows the director to show off his chops, and on the studio side, creates a segment people want to tell their friends about. "John Carter" has none. In fact, the action is disappointingly anonymous, with the mostly brief sequences playing out as blandly staged battles between masses of people, with choreography staying far enough on this side of coherent to at least keep it mostly straight as to what is going on, but hardly spurs further interest.

And it's not like there wasn't plenty of opportunity, but Stanton shorthands the most obvious moments where there could have been a place for some inventive play, while the sequences that are there are as bland and shortlived as they are memorable. As part of the finale, the Tharks -- who have spent the whole movie saying that they don't fly -- throw caution to the wind and comandeer space ships. Do we get a fun, thrilling look at this race of aliens heading into a battle for their planet, doing something they've never done before? Nope, we do a quick cut to crash landing when they arrive to help John Carter. And even earlier in the film, Dejah's flight from home to avoid being married is (mostly) explained, rather than shown. 

Watching the film, you do get a sense that the PG-13 film was committee-d to death. Tonally, "John Carter" is all over the map. While the action does live up to its rating for the most part, Stanton never can settle if he wants the kills to be cartoonish or realistically felt. In one chilling sequence of the film, we see bodies in the aftermath of a battle being stacked up, but most of the rest of the time, aliens are playfully seen being thrown and strewn all over the screen, with John Carter acting more like the video game style action hero Disney will want boys to buy the toy for. And this imbalance between a more serious tone and one more broadly appealing, is found in the disjointed comedic relief, with a running gag that has John Carter being called "Virginia" (where he's from) by the Tharks for much of the pic and in the character of Dejah, who starts off as warrior princess but winds up as a damsel in distress. And this perhaps goes back to the screenwriting (and general Disney routine) of being somewhat unable to write for women. In fact, "John Carter" is mostly a sausage party with only one other female character (a Thark at that) who ultimately has no bearing on the plot (she's largely a Macguffin that gets us to the white ape battle that has been a big part of the marketing campaign). And it should be noted here that Taylor Kitsch as a leading man is perfectly fine -- he's got presence, charm and is ruggedly handsome in the way the role requires -- but he, along with the rest of the cast, are simply let down by the material.

"John Carter" takes big aim at being a grand sci-fi adventure, a journey for our hero in a strange, alien land. But with a lack of motive (or a forever shifting one, that settles on the most dull option possible), a cheapshot ending that sells out the audience on a satisfying conclusion all in the name of serving up a sequel, Andrew Stanton's film never feels like more than just a prelude. And a pretty tedious one at that. Unfocused and edgeless, "John Carter" never finds an orbit, but instead passes in front of your eyes like a shooting star, illuminating all too briefly what could have been, before what's actually there is all you're left with. [D]

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30 Comments

  • joe | June 10, 2012 9:39 AMReply

    the movie is great your opinion sucks maybe you should read more books and get out of the movies critics biz

  • Rob | June 6, 2012 6:41 PMReply

    this is the worst review of the film I have ever seen, you should dig ditches for a living instead becauswe you sure dont know crap about movies. Go see the hunger games again you tween. This is a fantastic film and kept me enthralled the whole time, it was fun, well cast and for such a beautiful book the director did it great justice-you just want to jump on the critic bandwagon of hate for this film-reminds me another film that this happened too-star wars-this film will be a cult classic and your messed up review is proof that maybe you need to rethink your little hobby of a blog

  • Jake | June 5, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    Gee wiz Tommy and Kevin, I loath critics because they enjoy tearing things down. Kevin cannot direct and Tommy cannot write, so they blog. The book was written before jaded little cretins had websites. Some people just need Rotten Veggies to do form their opinion of what to see or miss. From taste in desert, to taste in movies the individual must decide, but critics can insure no sequels will be made. Now go do something constructive or pull the wings off flies.

  • Max | March 15, 2012 1:29 AMReply

    I'm a cinema spirit of 76 years. Regardless of what I was prepared to not like I found my trip to Mars with JOHN CARTER as a blast of pleasurable adventure. I thought the characters and the characterizations far more interesting than AVATAR or any other Sci-Fi film of recent viewing (past 2 years). It reminded me of a STAR WARS production with a little more action than usual. Not perfect but most entertaining. Looking forward to the next chapter. Keep Mark Strong as the protagonist. The Sherlock group goofed when they let him go elsewhere.

  • Ron | March 14, 2012 2:10 PMReply

    This review needs no rebuttal. KEVIN JAGERNAUTH is just a tool jumping on the "hate John Carter" bandwagon so he won't be laughed at.

  • TOMMY | March 12, 2012 9:21 PMReply

    I love how all the morons that hate this review, have the vocabulary of a Brooklyn cab driver. The only rebuttle they have is to throw out every curse word, and default to the "for what it is..." excuse. You know what? Shit smells pretty good, FOR WHAT IT IS. For everyone grown man that still addresses another adult man as "dude", needs to grow up and learn how to have a respectable, professional, grown up conversation about a subject. Figures it's these people who like "John Carter."

  • rob | June 6, 2012 6:43 PM

    Wow an insult from a half-wit! you make no sense and we ALL know your on on Team Jacob - you Twlight DUDE!

  • BIO | March 12, 2012 12:18 AMReply

    Totally awesome movie. The reviewers are all blowing it on this one. One of their big mistakes is comparing it to other movies, thinking John Carter is copying them, when in fact John Carter was written 100 years ago and these other movies have lifted elements from the Edger Rice Burroughs "Barsoom" series (John Carter and Mars). Going to see it again in 3D and when it comes out on DVD there will be two black tire marks out of my driveway to the store.

  • Greg | March 11, 2012 11:14 PMReply

    To Kevin;
    Dude it looks like people really hate you and your reviews. Find another pass time.

  • PhuqeCritics | March 11, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    Kev, baby, you are an elitist prick. This was a great movie for what it was, a simple Sci Fi "Guy Gets Girl" movie. It wasn't meant to be deep or meaningful. Why not do the world a favor and shove a hard copy of this movie up that huge a$$hole of yours so it can entertain that family of five that are already living in your anal cavity? Better yet find about ten actors in "The Artist" film yourself sucking their dicks? It should be "art" for you and your cohorts. Man, you suck.

  • Fred | March 11, 2012 5:43 PM

    That's a great apology for a film. "It wasn't meant to be deep or meaningful." LOL. It's a dumb, silly movie Kevin, why be hard on it you picky elitist!

    FACEPALM

  • Geek Soul Brother | March 10, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    I think the problem with critiquing this movie is that people are not used to seeing this sort of story. They feel that they can compare it to other science fictions they have seen, but John Carter is very original in it's setting and style, if not in it's basic 'knight and princess' structure. Barbarian mixed with advances technology is hard to put in a box. Some of the points you state are relevant, but to address the criticisms of the movie, I would ask how far should they have deviated from the books? Because they really did a fine adaptation. So if you thought the film was cheesy, then you will probably think the hundred year old source material is cheesy too. John Carter will be loved by many a young person down the road, as Edgar Rice's original Princess of Mars was for generations.

  • Herb S. | March 10, 2012 3:35 AMReply

    Unfortunately, critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how its done. They see it done every day. They just can't do it themselves. Maybe when YOUR version of John Carter comes out, you can correct what you see as flaws. Until then, we will just have to enjoy this one, which I had no problem following or figuring out. If you want your plots predictable and handed to you on a silver plate, you should stick to Saturday morning cartoons and Transformer movies.

  • Mike | March 9, 2012 3:20 AMReply

    I'm not quite sure you realize that Edgar Rice Burroughs appears as a character in his original novel A Princess of Mars. It's a writer's device that's kind of fallen out of favor, but I think it's not a fair criticism of the film, you should have known that going in. Kind of like complaining there was 70's pop music used in Moulin Rouge, people knew that going into the theater. I didn't like this ham sandwich, it has ham in it. And the writer appearing in the story was also used multiple times by Burroughs in Tarzan series, and by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Lost World, and by William Pene du Bois, and I think Jules Verne.
    As to the film being told in flashback, the book is too. As are the films Citizen Kane and Ghandi.
    As to the rest of the review, I was sorry to feel in drenched in disdain. I have some hope to enjoy the film, although some of the story points you mention widely diverge from the novel, which I find of some concern. Esp as to John's feelings towards Dejah Thoris, he is supposed to be enamored of her from the first meeting. But your disdain makes me wonder if you are unfairly biased to the performance and script. I hope the film is better than your review.

  • Daniel | March 8, 2012 3:35 PMReply

    *sigh If even George Lucas wrote nonsense when he got too much money, I suppose we shouldn't expect too much more from those just getting into the game. I'll still watch it for effects and try to think of it as an old Disney cheese-fest. But when will the next true Sci-Fi Epic finally arrive?

  • Daniel | March 8, 2012 3:35 PMReply

    *sigh If even George Lucas wrote nonsense when he got too much money, I suppose we shouldn't expect too much more from those just getting into the game. I'll still watch it for effects and try to think of it as an old Disney cheese-fest. But when will the next true Sci-Fi Epic finally arrive?

  • tommy | March 7, 2012 12:54 PMReply

    Yes, it's a piece a trash. If you didn't get that just by the appalling budget or the cheesy "Phantom Menace" trailers, or the fact that it was a CG, then you have no business watching films. Mr. Stanton, you're playing with the big boys now. I've been following you for awhile. Loved your Pixar films and have heard you speak many times at screenwriting seminars and podcasts. But I have to say, your ego has become a little inflated. Yes, you made a couple of great animated films, but live action is a different game. You should have done something humbler, smaller, more personal for your first live action film, as opposed to a 2-dimensional, CG fest based on other material. You get your foot in the door and you spend GDP of a small country to make this slop?! Shame on you. Please don't turn into George Lucas. Do something original. You got your foot in the door. But keep learning. You're still a child in the context of live-action. Jeez... you could have 25 films for that much money. Financial limitations spawn creativity. And abundance, kills it. Come back down to earth Mr. Stanton.

  • padre | March 7, 2012 5:47 AMReply

    Oh wow. The Disney/Pixar cultists are going to go apeshit over this review. Disney flacks won't be too pleased either. Very ballsy of Kevin. I hope Disney doesn't maintain a grudge list.

  • Any Person, USA | March 7, 2012 2:54 AMReply

    I dread that I'm going to one day pay for how much I laughed reading this. Tentpole-schmentpole, John Carter v. Terrence Malick, whatever. If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dissect the site's elitism because of a "John Carter" review. But do not deny, Jagernauth wrote a hysterical-balls to the wall-straight from the hip-love of filmmaking-tell it like it was-review. The idea that he referred to Dominic West only as McNulty, throughout--had me peeing!! The piss &vinegar construct reminded me, to keep a sense of humor about the oh-so serious business of film.

  • Nik Grape | March 6, 2012 2:28 PMReply

    Looks like my fears will be realized...and the fact that the white ape scene was only mentioned in passing makes me think it's not as great as the trailers are making it look. Just from the 10 minute clip I found Kitsch to be a pretty terrible actor and the screenplay to be full of spastically simple dialgoue. Shame, there was so much potential in this project...

  • Nolan | March 6, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    I thought it was an interesting choice to have someone like Michael Chabon come on to help with this screenplay. I love his novels, but he wouldn't really be the first guy I'd call up when I'm looking to streamline a summer blockbuster. His plots aren't exactly the tightest things on the planet.

    Regardless, I have been simultaneously skeptical of and ambivalent towards this. I was almost hoping it could shake off all of this bad buzz, but that certainly doesn't seem to be the case. Hey, Disney, maybe let's not greenlight wildly expensive adaptations of books no one has ever read and pack it with zero star power and a guy directing his first live action film? Just a thought.

  • Christopher Nolan | March 7, 2012 3:03 PM

    Yeah. Avatar had tons of stars in it.

  • KT | March 6, 2012 10:07 AMReply

    Yeah, I saw it and I have to agree completely with this review. But, like clockwork, this is the time of year where grueling winters come to a close, and the coming spring weather accompanies an onslaught of average blockbusters that nothing-to-do people are salivating over and will quickly throw their money at to get out the house for something to do. Hey, it worked for "Clash of the Titans"... but I expect this one to mimick "Tron Legacy" 's fate.

  • Fred | March 6, 2012 9:38 AMReply

    Try as some may convince you otherwise, this review is spot on.

  • Christian | March 6, 2012 8:32 AMReply

    I love the Playlist, but I personally can't trust you when it comes to tentpole blockbusters. Sometimes you come off as a bit too elitist for my taste. I'm giving this one a chance for Andrew Stanton.

  • The Playlist | March 7, 2012 9:34 AM

    I didn't dislike it as much as Kevin did, but it's also not very good. Maybe a C-. Pretty clunky plot that's really predictable and lazy. Also, it's just kind of a kids movie and maybe that's why it's sophistication is just a notch above the semi-similar "Attack Of the Clones."

  • evilnik | March 6, 2012 12:28 PM

    Agree with you. i love theplaylist. when it comes to tentpole flicks theplaylist instead of views it from a watching-a-terrence-malick flick view.

    and they gave Ghost Rider 2 a B rating. FUCKING B RATING for the worst movie of the year and the year is only 2.5 months old.

  • Thomasi | March 6, 2012 12:22 PM

    I'm trying to get at this idea of elitism, as it pertains to popcorn movies. I enjoy popcorn movies. I also enjoy vanilla Coke. Is it wrong not to absolutely rave about a bottle of vanilla Coke, just because it's about the best a bottle of vanilla Coke can be? When talking about the merits of vanilla Coke, shouldn't we temper our praise with the awareness that there are also extraordinary wines in this world, or craft beers, or whatever your poison is? "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was a really good movie, but it was Coke with (for sake of argument) real vanilla in it. "The Dark Knight" was very good too, but relatively speaking it was a good Trader Joe's wine. "John Carter"? Let's be real. I'll be shocked if it turns out be better than a Diet Dr. Pepper that's been left open in the sun since this morning.

  • Christian | March 6, 2012 10:03 AM

    JB: Sure, and maybe I'll also be disappointed by it for the very same reasons - but I'm willing to at least give it a chance. I'm definitely not expecting a Pixar-level film, that's for sure.

  • jb | March 6, 2012 9:27 AM

    well this review is spot on. a good genre tentpole can be thrilling, but this fell short and there was way too much going on, and YES it was explained horribly. i will say that dejah was written as a heroine, fighting as well as JC, and an academic. that part was actually really refreshing.

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