At one point during its years-long development, the sci-fi epic John Carter (then known as John Carter of Mars) was set to be directed by Kerry Conran, who made the underrated retro sci-fi movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in 2004. Conran probably would have been able to bring the right kind of old-fashioned pulp sensibility to the material, but the director who ultimately ended up helming John Carter, Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, opts instead for a sleek, modern approach that renders the story’s corny, archaic tone stiff and awkward.
It’s not surprising that Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and makes his live-action debut with John Carter, would focus on creating a richly detailed CGI world, and the movie indeed has an impressive look. The problem is that the large-scale action-movie style doesn’t fit the story, and ends up highlighting how stilted and musty it is. Carter himself (Taylor Kitsch) is a bit of a relic, a former Confederate soldier who’s prospecting in Arizona after the end of the Civil War when he comes across a mysterious cave and a powerful amulet that instantly transports him to Mars. There he encounters several warring factions of Martians, including a somewhat primitive race of green-skinned, four-armed barbarians and the more technologically advanced red-skinned humanoids.
Carter falls in love with the humanoid princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and he teams up with her to save Mars from some sort of threat, although it remains vaguely defined. Based on the first of author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 novels set on Mars (A Princess of Mars, published in 1917), the story is disjointed and episodic, featuring Carter repetitively being captured and escaping over and over again. Burroughs’ Mars stories were a big influence on George Lucas, so it seems unfair to criticize the movie for being overly reminiscent of Star Wars, but the biggest problem is that it’s mostly reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, with its flat acting, clumsy dialogue and protracted, tedious plotting. There’s a lot of hokey fun in old pulp stories like Burroughs’, but John Carter fails to capture any of that charm.