Dir: Andrew Stanton. US. 2012. 133mins

John Carter

After having to endure months of bad press – thanks to everything from lengthy re-shoots to a ballooning budget that reportedly reached $300 million – John Carter finally arrives in theatres, and it bears all the hallmarks of a troubled production. Though ambitiously mounted and sporadically enthralling, the live-action debut of Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and Wall-E) is unfortunately a sci-fi spectacle that’s just not very spectacular.

John Carter proves exceedingly difficult to follow.

Releasing on Friday, John Carter will have the advantage of being the only blockbuster-scale effects extravaganza in the marketplace. But that might not be enough to counteract several key worries for this Disney offering, which include the fact that its up-and-coming star (Taylor Kitsch) isn’t yet widely known, it’s based on a property (adapted from a novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs) that’s not culturally ubiquitous, and its uninspired marketing campaign has been hesitant and unfocused. Indeed, because so much of John Carter’s pre-release life has swirled around its supposed cost overages, this may be a film that will require stellar commercial success to overcome all that negative publicity – and while that’s far from impossible, it may be rather difficult to achieve without significant word-of-mouth.

In its early stretches, the film introduces us to Kitsch as Carter, a disillusioned, tough-as-nails 19th century Civil War captain who finds himself teleported to Mars, where he immediately plunges into the middle of a very different civil war occurring on the Red Planet between the Zodangans and Heliumites. Aided by Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a Heliumite princess who has been promised to Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West) in the hopes of ending the conflict, Carter must figure out a way to return to Earth while trying to survive amidst Mars’ warring factions.              

Based on Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, John Carter recalls everything from the American Western to swords-and-sandals epics like Gladiator. Sadly, what it barely evokes are the strengths of Stanton’s previous films. In the leap from animation to live-action, Stanton has largely left behind the sweetness, smarts, emotional resonance, and sophisticated tonal control that marked his Pixar films. Instead, John Carter too often lumbers from set piece to set piece, its mixture of dark violence and occasional frivolity disjointed and unconvincing. (Especially irksome is the recurring sight of an overgrown, overly cutesy Martian dog, a sop to the family audience that doesn’t mesh well with the more frightening battle scenes elsewhere.)

Part of the film’s lack of consistent forward momentum must also be blamed on Kitsch, who is (to be fair) appropriately hunky enough to play a character that often wears little more than an oversized loincloth. But as a leading man, Kitsch doesn’t have much swagger or charisma, which makes his adventures across Mars feel rather perfunctory. Consequently, you’re mostly shackled to yet another hero’s journey without a twinkle in its eye or much urgency in its step.

While sci-fi films often require a bit of patience in order to digest all the different characters and their fanciful worlds, John Carter proves exceedingly difficult to follow, establishing not just the feuding Zodangans and Heliumites but also the savage Thark tribe and a group of mysterious, shape-shifting Therns. Even though the film is over two hours long, Stanton and his co-writers fail to do an adept job at juggling all these disparate characters and their competing goals. As a result, John Carter tends to work best when the movie puts aside the exposition and lets the big action sequences take over.

Although Kitsch gives the movie an underwhelming centre, the rest of the cast doesn’t do much to distinguish themselves, either – whether it’s veteran actors such as Ciaran Hinds (as Dejah’s unyieldingly dour father) or newer faces such as Collins. As evil Thern leader Matai Shang, Mark Strong delivers the exact same sort of monochromatic-villain performance he’s done before in films such as Green Lantern or Kick-Ass. It’s worth noting that John Carter’s most indelible turns come from cast members you can’t see, such as Willem Dafoe, who exudes gravitas in his voice work as the CG Thark leader Tars Tarkas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, John Carter’s effects are the true star, but even this compliment needs to be qualified. While the movie’s flying ships, digitally-rendered Tharks, and elaborate environments are all superbly designed, there’s a gaudy busyness to the visuals that feels chaotic rather than revelatory. Likewise, the post-converted 3D gives John Carter a fine sense of depth and scale, but it doesn’t have the pizzazz to really justify making audiences pay extra to see it in that format. Whatever the film’s budget actually was, you definitely see it all up there on the screen – which makes it even sadder that there wasn’t a stronger vision bringing it all together.

Production company: Disney

Domestic distribution: Walt Disney Pictures

Producers: Jim Morris, Lindsey Collins, Colin Wilson

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on the story A Princess Of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Cinematography: Dan Mindel

Production designer: Nathan Crowley

Editor: Eric Zumbrunnen

Music: Michael Giacchino

Website: www.JohnCarterArrives.com

Main cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara