“John Carter,” the film adapted from the first book in author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sprawling 11-part “Barsoom” fantasy series, represents the most acceptable type of failure: The filmmakers were too close to the source material.
After an arduous 76-year process to get “John Carter” on the big screen, beginning with “Looney Tunes” director Bob Clampett’s thwarted 1936 animated feature and ending with ex-porn star Traci Lords’ straight-to-video travesty “Princess of Mars,” it’s hard to fault director and unabashed Burroughs fanboy Andrew Stanton for wanting to cram every possible detail into the world he grew up reading.
Unfortunately, all that cramming doesn’t leave much room for the characters to develop. Before the film can get to the metafictional frame story, involving a fictitious Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) telling the story by reading a diary bequeathed to him by his recently deceased uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), the film begins with a separate narrator who informs the viewer about three warring races that inhabit the Martian desert.
The level of detail lavished on this 20-minute introductory sequence, with multiple layers of narrative, sets the learning curve ridiculously high for those new to the franchise. The story begins in earnest when John, a recently discharged Confederate soldier-turned-pacifist, discovers a golden cave with an amulet that instantly transports him to Mars.
John arrives in the midst of an invasion launched by the Zodangan prince Sab Than (“The Wire’s” Dominic West). Sab receives a mysterious weapon of mass destruction from an even more mysterious race of shapeshifting masterminds called the Therns that allows him to annihilate anyone who opposes him. Because Martian gravity is 38 percent as strong as Earth’s, John discovers he can jump hundreds of feet into the Martian atmosphere; an athletic feat that somehow becomes the counterattack par excellence against Sab’s death ray.
When John encounters princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) leading the resistance against Sab, he must decide whether to give up on pacifism and fight using his mad hops or find a way to return to earth. The film doesn’t allow the eponymous hero much time to ponder his decision. When “John Carter” isn’t pumping out chewy exposition, it launches into one of its countless action sequences designed to captivate audiences in place of any emotional connection to the characters.
With a reported budget of $250 million, the action sequences are certainly impressive to watch. However, the film falls apart whenever necessity forces it to introduce increasingly convoluted plot points, such as an arranged marriage between Sab and Dejah, to push the story forward. Fumbling beneath the surface of this sword-and-sorcery space epic is a religious allegory about a man with the initials “JC” who descends from the sky to provide salvation to a war-torn land.
However, the shapeshifting Therns, supposedly the physical manifestation of sin, aren’t respected enough by the filmmakers to provide a motivation for their elaborate scheming beyond self-congratulatory speeches about their own cleverness; a shortsightedness that causes all subsequent conflicts to ring hollow. Despite Stanton’s loving recreation of Burroughs’ vision, he neglected to update the film in one meaningful way for modern audiences: He didn’t give the viewer a reason to care.