After watching John Carter, it’s difficult not to feel underwhelmed and disappointed. Here is a film that has been in on-and-off production since the 1930s, is based on a well-received novel, eventually was given a $250 million budget, and has the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo at the helm. The resulting film is a bit of a mess, even though it’s also consistently entertaining and is chock-full of great ideas.
The film stars Taylor Kitsch as the eponymous hero. he begins the film sometime in the late 1800s or early 1900s, being tracked down by a colonel who wants him to help the Americans hunt down the Native Americans. John claims that he no longer fights for anyone, and is in search of a cave full of gold. Upon finding the cave, he shoots a man inside, touches a medallion, and is transported to a desert wasteland which we soon learn is actually Mars. Somehow, the Civil War veteran has found himself on Mars, which is a planet we apparently don’t really know all that much about.
After adjusting to Mars’ gravity, John finds himself approached by fifteen-foot, four-armed, green aliens with tusks coming out of their face. They don’t speak English, he doesn’t speak their language, and after a humorous exchange, they capture him, give him a magical drink, and the rest of the film is conducted in English. It’s here when we learn about Mars, how there are warring factions (the red and the blue people), and how there’s one person who was given magical powers that has been chosen by demi-gods to rule everyone. There’s also a princess (Lynn Collins), as there needs to be a love interest for John to fawn over.
From what we understand about our protagonist, he just wants to get home, get his gold, pay off his debts, and live a life of luxury. He’s a very self-obsessed character, one who is tired of war and just wants to keep to himself. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to us — although not necessarily to him — that he’ll need to participate in this war for control of Mars in order to get himself home. And if he can save and fall in love with the princess while he does it, then that’s just great.
Well, we assume that it’ll be great. I’m unsure of what John Carter thinks, as Taylor Kitsch doesn’t move a single facial muscle throughout. He smiles once, but apart from that, he keeps his face as rigid as humanly possible. His voice is also monotonous, and if we’re supposed to be learning about his emotional responses to what’s going on around him, Kitsch doesn’t help us out. There isn’t even a pause for a moment to take in Mars or its inhabitants; this character puts business ahead of anything else and doesn’t act in the least bit like a relatable human being.
There is an attempt to make John appear sympathetic. We get flashbacks about his former life, all dealing with his wife and child. This only happens about three or four times, and these scenes don’t add up to much. They certainly didn’t accomplish their goal, and instead added to inflate the running time. What they actually did was hurt the pacing and potentially take away time from more important scenes.
While there won’t be any proof of this until John Carter hits home video, it plays like it wants to be an epic with a running time akin to the Lord of the Rings films. It has enough ideas within to fill up three hours of space, and I wouldn’t have been disappointed if it had, but it seemed as if a time limit was imposed by the studio, which stopped the film from being the scope that it so desperately needed.
Because of this, many of the things that John Carter brings up don’t get the time, space, or development that would make them entirely satisfactory. The ongoing war almost seems tacked-on even though it’s the main threat, the huge aliens appear to be mistreated by the rest of the planet but we don’t know why, and the demi-gods have the power to control everything but don’t for some reason. Almost all of these things could have been given an entire film’s running time by themselves, but here they’re jammed and cut down to fit within 132 minutes.
It’s as a result of so much going on that never goes as far as you want that John Carter left me feeling disappointed. The film as a whole is enjoyable, action-packed, and looks gorgeous (with a $250 million budget, it had better look good), but it felt as if it could have been so much more. If an extended cut is released in a few months on Blu-ray that ends up being 30-40 minutes longer than what is seen in theaters, it wouldn’t be a surprise. There’s just so much more that could have been done with this material that it’s almost a shame that we only get a movie that’s just over two hours long. But, hey, if you’re wanting a film to be longer, that means it was at least enjoyable enough to want to see more. That’s a positive in my books.
John Carter is a disappointing film only because of how much more could have been expanded upon. That doesn’t make it bad, and I expect most audience members to enjoy it right up until the end, but after reflecting upon it, I anticipate most hoping for more. Apart from that, it’s an action-packed film that is absolutely stunning to look at that contains mediocre performances and needed another 30 minutes of running time.
Review first posted in The Gauntlet newspaper.