Hardly Breathing on Mars

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Of all the adjectives that exist in the world, silly is probably the best one to describe “John Carter.” What else is there to say about a film that portrays a man with extraordinary abilities on Mars? Besides, the way Walt Disney Pictures marketed it never really depicted it beyond this impression.

I was never really compelled to watch the film until I watched a featurette for it. There was a moment when actor Willem Dafoe exclaimed, “‘John Carter’ had to be there in order for ‘Star Wars’ to happen!” You don’t say, Willem? Say no more –– I’m suddenly interested.

Think about it, people. Without “John Carter,” there is no “Star Wars.” Let me repeat that: no “Star Wars.” If “Star Wars” owes its existence to “John Carter,” then “John Carter” must be pretty damn important and instantly deserves our undivided attention.

Indeed, undivided attention is exactly what we need when watching “John Carter.” Though it certainly has heart and offers instances of genuine fun, the film moves far too ahead for comfort while simultaneously throwing too much information for us to digest.

Based on the novel “A Princess of Mars,” the first of Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Barsoom” series, the film recounts the adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Civil War Confederate Army captain who is mysteriously transported to Mars, which is also known as Barsoom. There, he finds that he can leap to great distances and heights and that it is populated by alien and humanoid species.

As Carter tries to find his way back to Earth, he meets Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the fiery princess of the city Helium, who is to marry Sab Than (Dominic West), the cruel leader of Zodanga, in an effort to bring peace between the opposing cities. Though he tells himself that he should not get involved, Carter is nevertheless drawn into this conflict that threatens all life on Barsoom.

It’s difficult to watch “John Carter” without accepting it as what it is intended to be: a grandiose, unadulterated pulp flick. Director and screenwriter Andrew Stanton, who helms his first live action film, approaches the material with great appreciation and gusto, and it certainly shows in the portrayal of this strange yet wondrous world of Mars.

However, we are forced outside of our comfort zone when watching the film, as the story commits the cardinal sin of continually moving at a farther and faster rate than our ability to comprehend. What makes this experience even more disheartening is that the story feeds us information that’s either too much for us to digest in a short period of time, or it comes much later than necessary. As a result, not only does it feel as though the film is longer than it actually is, it also seems like we’re driven to play a game of keep-up-with-the-narrative, one which we never really catch up to until the film ends.

To make matters worse, this stumbling block is evident in the film’s opening scenes. Though Stanton encouragingly uses the first several minutes to establish the background to the conflict between Helium and Zodanga, we are never able to distinguish the two nearly similar groups of soldiers apart until the alien-like warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) tells Carter how to tell them apart, which comes around the 25-minute mark (the Helium soldiers’ clothes are blue while those of the Zodanga soldiers are red).

While it is true that Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels did inspire films like “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” it’s a grueling effort to not think otherwise every time a scene reminiscent of those films pops up in “John Carter,” which happens rather frequently to the point where it becomes distracting. Heck, some of those scenes evoke some painful memories; when Carter flies a speeder through Mars’ desert-like landscape, I was reminded of an unfortunate child from “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” who whooped, “Now this is pod racing!” Oh God – I tried so hard to forget that, and it has come back to haunt me.

“John Carter” isn’t so much about the characters as much as it is about Mars itself, so the cast isn’t given much material to work with. Taylor Kitsch plays Carter exactly as the character is written – dull and soulless – and maintains one single facial expression for the film’s duration: eyes squinted with jaw slightly dropped. Lynn Collins fares much better in comparison, as she is able to effectively showcase Dejah’s volatile personality. Other cast members like Dominic West never communicate beyond what we already know about their characters, while some, like Willem Dafoe or Bryan Cranston (in a minor role as Colonel Powell), manage to add an extra dimension that makes them slightly more interesting.

Of course, the film does have its moments when it comes to life. The action sequences where Carter utilizes his superior jumping abilities against his opponents are shot well and are quite enjoyable to watch. Also impressive are scenes featuring Mars’ inhabitants, architecture and technology, as they not only fully demonstrate the amount of effort that the production team put into them, but also are the instances in which cinematography, editing, sound effects and music sync to create a captivating atmosphere.

Whether you enjoy “John Carter” is dependent on whether you can bear to keep up with the narrative and effortlessly absorb all that it quickly throws at you. For me, it was too much and sadly bogged down the experience, regardless of the immense heart and passion the film has. A real shame, it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5