"John Carter of Earth? John Carter of Mars... sounds much better."
Okay, let's start right away with the title. It sounds like the worst movie Denzel Washington never made. He was a rogue cop, who didn't play by the rules. They tried to reign him in, they gave him a new partner, and what that new partner never bargained for... was John Carter. Directed by Tony Scott. Script by Ehren Kruger. So yeah, seriously, fuck that title. Even adding "Of Mars" to it would not have been an improvement. The sheer number of times people say John Carter in the film made me think Tennessee Williams was somehow behind this whole thing.
I'm not going to pretend that I know much about the source material. I know that the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs have a pretty rabid fan base, and that the story that he created over a century ago has been mined for countless science fiction novels & films over the years that the original now looks like a pale imitator. My friend Mark reviewed the film over on his blog, and I'm linking to his review right here so you can read more about the backstory, and get another man's opinion on this film, because our opinions of it differ greatly.
I found this film to be a miserable failure. For all of the money that was spent bringing this world to life, populating it with competent actors seemed to have been the furthest thing from the minds of its creators. Let's start with our eponymous hero, played by Taylor Kitsch, a man so thoroughly lacking anything resembling charisma, it made me think that even Josh Hartnett would have been a marked improvement. He's like all the worst aspects of Hartnett & James Franco when they're at their naval-gazing worst. I remember when The Matrix came out, and I couldn't figure out why on earth they cast Keanu Reeves in it, but once I saw that they needed someone who could easily play confused by all the strange new rules of a strange new world, he immediately became the perfect choice.
This is a similar situation. John Carter is a bad-ass on Earth, but once he's transported to Mars, he just picks up his bad-ass ways after about five minutes of acclimating to the new atmosphere. He never seems genuinely confused or frightened by anything. I know he's a bad-ass, but even the biggest bad-ass has to, at the very least, have a period of adjustment that extends beyond a handful of minutes.
Was this a directorial choice or an actor choice? It doesn't really matter because the blame for that lay firmly at the feet of director Andrew Stanton. If that wasn't what he wanted, he could have done something about it. Kitsch has all the charisma of a cardboard box, and he is most famous for playing a high school quarterback on television as recently as eighteen months ago, so I just don't buy him as a guy with any sort of backstory on a scale with the one they presented. Also, dude was way too cut for a man living in the 19th Century. Where was this guy getting his pump on? He looks like he strolled out of a Gold's Gym, not a Confederate prison.
Then there's Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars who becomes Carter's reason for standing up and fighting back. She's hot, that's undeniable, but that's about it. She suffers from Carrie Fisher syndrome, not knowing which accent sounds best, so she tries out a few. She's also so bronzed it's distracting. I am worried for her skin twenty years from now, and these are not things I should be thinking about while watching a sweeping epic. I guess that just goes to show what I felt about the film overall; I was so distracted by the amount of bronzer the female lead is wearing that it was all I can think about when she was onscreen.
There's some decent actors in smaller roles like Ciaran Hinds & Mark Strong, both of whom I like as actors, but neither of whom did anything for me here. Dominic West reprises his role from 300 in case you really liked his character in that movie, you get to spend another two hours with him here. While we don't get to see them, we get to hear Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church & Samantha Morton, all respectable actors playing cgi Tharks. Serkis must have been busy being in every other mo-cap movie ever made to have turned up.
I have been very vocal with my criticism of the marketing campaign for this movie. It was shit. And if this article is to be believed, the blame for it may not be totally on the shoulders of Disney's marketing people. I hope it's not true, as I am a fan of Stanton's work with Pixar, and would hate to think he's that short-sighted, but it wouldn't surprise me. I know that most of the reviews, particularly the negative ones, have dwelled entirely too long on the film's budget, so I don't want to re-hash any of that lest I be branded for being blind to the film's virtues. The film utilizes its budget well, and you can definitely see every cent of the budget up on screen (unlike films like Superman Returns that were unfairly saddled with carrying additional budget for all the times the film was attempted and didn't happen).
At the end of the day, I refuse to believe that this is the best possible version of this story that could have been filmed. One of the things that people fail to realize when criticizing a film for having broadly drawn, one-dimensional villains is that villains of that sort make it so much easier to become involved in the spectacle of it all. I'm not saying that one-dimensional villains should be par for the course, but when you look at the villains in Harry Potter, Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, etc. it makes it so much easier to get caught up in the story because you don't have to spend time figuring out their motivations.
The motivations of the, no less than, four different sets of villains John Carter battles throughout this entire film, are unclear at best and not even present at worst. There were so many bad guys, I had no idea why I should be rooting for John Carter. Why not root for one of the other bad guy factions? I'm supposed to root for him just because he's in love with some bronzed up hussy that multiple people want to kill? Sorry, that doesn't work for me.
Overall, I guess I could see where people might enjoy this, but it just didn't do it for me. Maybe I'm a cold-hearted cynical bastard, but in reality, I think this film had far too many problems to be accessible to anyone but die hard fans of the source material. And if I'm grading a film on those merits, this one is an unmitigated failure.