Well, this was a mess.
The thing is that I actually kinda sorta enjoyed it in places, but overall it’s just very poorly structured and the storytelling is plain messy. One of the biggest problems with it is how it’s paced: It starts off incoherently, with a lengthy, almost 15-minute sequence where you have absolutely no idea what’s going on, and then when it shifts to Mars, it seems to move on fast forward, barely leaving the characters any room to breathe or to develop so that you might actually come to care about them. Part of the problem is that it keeps cutting away from John Carter to other characters who don’t really need to be given extra introductory scenes than what they had in the novel.
I like the fact that they made Dejah Thoris a more “active” character here and not such a damsel in distress as she was in the novel, but I think in the process, a lot was lost – her compassion and intelligence from the novel were all gone. The problem is that the film keeps going through scene after scene after scene with such urgency that the characters and the world are barely developed. One of the benefits of John Carter in the novel being a very straightforward hero is that it doesn’t over-complicate the plot and it helps make the world around him more interesting. I especially liked the descriptions of the deserted and abandoned cities and the long lost civilization that must have built them, etc. I liked the description of who the Green Martians are and how their customs, etc., differ from the Red Martians. Things like that. This movie, however, has no time for any of this. Its biggest misstep is that it turns John Carter into a mopey, conflicted character – and, unfortunately, barely has any time to develop that either. We get brief flashbacks of his family getting fridged (and we only learn the full picture during an action scene that’s cross-cut with these flashbacks), which doesn’t actually help. We barely know John Carter, now you want us to care that he lost his wife and child (whom we never meet) in a fire (I’m assuming that’s what it was)?
The thing about the John Carter character is that, given that he was written over a 100 years ago, he was very much a male/masculine wish fulfillment character. He’s meant to appeal to what’s traditionally considered a “masculine” gender trait – chivalrous, brave, things of that sort. Even today, when you can see how a lot of it is dated, it still manages to engage you and compel you. That’s what made John Carter a fun character to read about. Taylor Kitsch, with the way his character is written and the way his performance is directed, looks to be doing a pretty uninterested/uninspired Christian Bale impression. It doesn’t work at all and John Carter is in fact the least interesting character in his own film.
Well, no, that’s not true. The Therns (who aren’t in fact in the first novel and from what I’ve read are nothing like this in the rest of the novels) are extremely cliched and uninteresting. Dominic West looks completely lost here and major/important plot details are really badly condensed and gotten over with (like the revelation about Sola’s father). Another big misstep, I think, is having a sci-fi explanation for how John Carter travels to Mars. I liked the mystery in the novel and I really don’t see the point of removing that.
Andrew Stanton’s direction for the most part is fine. The action scenes are visually legible and otherwise his shot compositions, etc., are decent. Nothing outstanding by any stretch of the imagination. Lynn Collins is the one really good thing about this movie and it actually makes me a bit disappointed that she didn’t get to play that fully fleshed out character from the book and instead got lost in the over-complicated, over-stuffed machinations of the plot. Overall, as I said, I did kinda sorta enjoy this movie in places, but the more I think about it, the more it falls apart in my mind.