Johnny Reb finds he belongs on Planet Red. Andrew Stanton’s most peculiar “John Carter,” which was produced as “John Carter of Mars,” and appears as the film’s end title, is a boy’s dream story come true, if you’re Andrew Stanton grown tall. Adapted from a novel in an Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series about a Confederate soldier transported to Mars, “John Carter” makes a mix of live action and animation into something deluxe but dinky, neither “Cowboys & Aliens” nor the original “Star Wars.” Unlike, say, the extended, wordless opening of “Wall*E,” “John Carter” remains cryptic, emotionally disconnected. There’s so much odd stuff and little apparent reason for the way the story is structured, a surprise coming from a filmmaker who was a writer on all three “Toy Story” movies as well as Oscar-winning director of “Wall*E” and “Finding Nemo.” There’s a marvelous TED talk by Stanton, “The Clues To A Great Story,” the nineteen minutes of which gave me far more pleasure than any of the 132 minutes of “John Carter.” (It doesn’t hurt that his opening salvo, an economical telling of the old joke about a Scotsman who’s built much of a village with his own hands, ends with the line, “But fuck one goat.”) I want to see movies made by that man! Even in 3D, scenes of scale in “John Carter” seldom pop, even when a tiny Carter bounds across the landscape like a jumping bean, or when the plain is roiled by the approach of a vast, sandy haboob. Or a vista held a beat or two longer than expected, seen under two gibbous moons—Earth, its moon—with edifices resembling the architecture that glitters in Qatari sun. One of the screenplay’s credited contributors is Michael Chabon, but the dialogue runs largely to bursts like “Choice is a luxury even for a Jeddak of Barsoom!”; “We ride! For Sudanka!”; and “You are ugly—but you are beautiful—You fight like a Thark!” Michael Giacchino’s indispensable score is swanky only just shy of jaunty. But the names, the three-way war, the odd creatures, and especially, several hairpieces, are beyond my ken. One Tars Tarkas, for instance, is a taller, less absurd predecessor to one Jar-Jar Binks. (There are a number of things that make it seem like “John Carter” is partially meant to demonstrate that George Lucas has often leaned upon the work of Burroughs.) Ciarán Hinds as Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium? Under a topper like a golf-course divot dried out to the consistency of a bird’s nest? In an interesting design parallel, The Jeddak of Helium’s regalia, seen on banners, of a planet half in night, half in light, with vertical lines rising through, resembles Sam Smyth’s splendid key art for the recent Janus/Criterion issue of Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire.” With Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong and a whole lot of voices behind CGI-animated figures. 132m. (Ray Pride)
“John Carpenter” opens today on earth.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.