Robinson Crusoe on Mars
John Carter is a prime example of a film made to be a blockbuster rather than a compelling or involving experience. It has all the surface elements a blockbuster should have: a hero, a “save the world” plot, an attractive woman who needs saving, an unearthly setting, clean special effects, and lots of action scenes. Unfortunately, that is about all it has, and it lacks, most notably, anything to make us care about the story wrapped within the movie’s blockbuster attributes. I would say it has the makings for the perfect trailer, but even that statement is made impossible by the film’s title, which makes the act of purchasing a ticket for the movie embarrassing for anyone who doesn’t want to sound like they’re going to see a tween romance starring someone from an after-school Disney drama.
The film is about a sort of antihero, John Carter, who, through an odd occurrence, finds himself transported to Mars while evading the Confederate army. This isn’t the Mars that realistically exists, however; it’s a Mars populated by warring civilizations and at least two very different intelligent species. Sab Than, the leader of one of these civilizations, has all but annihilated the other, and asks only to wed their princess, Dejah Thoris, for which he will spare what is left of their people. In comes John Carter, who, due to superior bone density and the planet’s lesser pull of gravity, has the abilities to both leap incredible distances and pull off amazing feats of strength in combat, both to somewhat inconsistent degrees. Eventually Carter begins fighting for the princess’s freedom from Sab Than, apparently because he is beginning to fall in love with her.
I say "apparently" because up until the final five or ten minutes of the film, we have no idea what Carter is feeling, and he occasionally claims to have no feelings about anything. Carter’s dialogue consists almost solely of stereotypical “hardened antihero” statements along with whatever is necessary for him to get himself out of various tough situations. His facial expression rarely changes throughout the film. He expresses no remorse, fear, misgiving, or happiness in the two-plus hours that we watch him fighting aliens and saving Dejah Thoris. That is the chief problem with the movie: it lacks emotion. So, instead of connecting with the events and feeling their impact on the characters, we merely observe from a purely information-based standpoint. We have to use deductive logic to figure these things out. Carter is fighting tirelessly for Dejah Thoris’s freedom; Carter doesn’t care about justice; therefore Carter must care about Dejah Thoris. Logic, unfortunately, does not make a film enjoyable; the experience of emotion does.
Carter and the writers’ unwillingness to show emotion presents a more basic problem with the character: he’s boring. It is clear that the filmmakers were going for a Clint Eastwood-like appeal here. Unfortunately, John Carter is to Clint Eastwood what Kenny Chesney is to Johnny Cash. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, for instance, Eastwood’s character was surrounded by events, characters, scenery, and even music that brought emotion to the film. Additionally, though difficult to read, he was interesting and occasionally funny. John Carter, on the other hand, is surrounded by predictable events, stock characters, standard CG effects, and a score that, though adequate, is unremarkable. Carter simply does not stand out in any way, nor does the film surrounding him.
Adding to the pile of uninteresting elements is the Martian race that is in the film. Much like Avatar, this is a tribal race of intelligent beings whose customs resemble those of a pulp adventure novel set in Africa. They use obscure phrasing to challenge each other to battle. They punish their children for dishonoring the family. They look down upon Carter for being an outsider. As would be expected, Carter befriends an outcast of this tribe, which ends up becoming a key plot point. The only thing original about this race is their endowment with the tusks of an anorexic elephant.
I wish the makers of John Carter would have, at one point during the writing of the film, stepped back and asked its reason for existing. The answer they probably would have come up with would have been “to be a blockbuster,” assuming they had looked at their script objectively. There is nothing wrong with making a blockbuster, but when that is the sole aim of the film, there’s almost no way it can work. Movies have to take risks, and they have to have an emotional element to them. We have to feel something towards them. Otherwise, the film becomes an attempt to profit off of those who can’t spot a work of art from a work of marketing. John Carter turned out to be the latter.