Film review: John Carter

By Matthew Parkinson

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. The plot begins sometime in the late 1800s with John being tracked down by a colonel who wants him to join another war. 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 mysterious 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 the Red Planet.

After adjusting to Mars’s gravity, John finds himself approached by 15-foot, four-armed green aliens with tusks coming out of their faces. 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 that we learn about Mars, its warring actions, and how there’s one person who was given magical powers to rule everyone. There’s also a princess, Dejah Thoris (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. Or so we assume.

See, we can never be sure of this, thanks to Taylor Kitsch and his unmoving facial muscles. 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. Lynn Collins also has no idea how to hold down a faux British accent, but at least understands that emotional responses are good to have from time to time.

While there won’t be any proof of this until John Carter comes to DVD (and maybe not even then), this is a film that plays like it wants to be an epic with a running time akin to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has enough ideas within to fill up three hours of space, but it seemed as if a time limit was imposed by the studio, which stopped the film from having 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. If an extended cut is released in a few months on Blu-ray that ends up being 30 to 40 minutes longer than what is seen in theatres, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

John Carter is a disappointing film only because of how much bigger it could have been — it contains mediocre performances and needed another 30 minutes of running time. That doesn’t make it bad, though, and I expect most audience members to enjoy it right up until the end. Apart from that, it’s an action-packed film that is absolutely stunning watch.