John Carter (2012): Andrew Stanton’s Adventure, Starring Taylor Kitsch

Much as Warner went back to the work of Jules Verne to start up its successful (and very Disneyesque) “Journey” franchise (“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”), Disney is now going back to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs to try to start a new sci-fi franchise.

“John Carter,” which cost more than $250 million to make, is based on Burroughs’s Barsoom (meaning Mars) stories. Whether it will lead to multiple sequels will depend largely on audience response to this film and evolving Hollywood economics, but it is hard to imagine kids sitting still through this uninvolving “Star Wars” knockoff.

After a dull, hard-to-follow prologue on Mars, the film proper kicks in with former Confederate officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) on the run from the US Army and Apaches in Monument Valley. If audiences ever wanted to know what a John Ford movie would look like in 3D, they will get a taste of it here.

Carter encounters a visiting Martian elite in a cave and suddenly finds himself transported to the “dying planet” of Mars, known as Barsoom to the locals, who themselves look an awful lot like visitors—as in visitors from the “Star Wars” universe.

On Barsoom, Carter actually inhabits a stronger duplicate body, while his real body sleeps through the whole adventure back on earth. Soon known as “the one who jumps,” he can run, punch, and, yes, jump like Superman himself.

Carter falls in with the Tharks (lots of extra arms), who are essentially the Na’vi of Barsoom, although not as civilized as their Pandora compatriots of “Avatar” (2009).

The Tharks are on the sidelines of an endless war between two cities of sunburnt human types, all with tattooed faces and British accents. “Let red men kill red men until only Tharks remain!” exclaims a frustrated Thark patriarch voiced by Willem Dafoe.

Carter becomes the key figure in ending the war and bringing balance to Barsoom.

This film was likely green lit thanks to all that money made by “Avatar,” with which it shares many plot similarities—indeed, too many. But “John Carter” is more clearly indebted to George Lucas than James Cameron: it looks, sounds, and feels like a “Star Wars” prequel, especially “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” which is now, believe it or not, a decade old.

One of the final set pieces in “John Carter” is a perplexing near-remake of the arena scene from “Attack of the Clones.” Why did Disney spend so much money on something so clearly derivative and dated?

There is a love interest for Carter on Barsoom: Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins), who is unwillingly engaged to another man, the evil but attractive Prince Sab Than (Dominic West). The princess spends a lot of her screen time sharing her obsession with tapping into some kind of Martian power source called “the ninth ray,” which is not clearly explained.

Ace animation director Andrew Stanton (“A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo,” and “WALL-E”) makes his live action debut with “John Carter” but does not find the transition as smooth as did his fellow Pixar heavyweight Brad Bird, with “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol” (2011).

Stanton’s Pixar films are prime examples of concise storytelling and character development, but this film runs about half an hour longer than it needs to.

The characters are all science-fiction stock types. Kitsch growls his way through the movie, almost like Josh Brolin in “True Grit” (2010), and is unable to bring a heroic quality to the lead role of Carter, which would have been a perfect role for Harrison Ford in his youthful prime.

The screenplay, by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and the novelist Michael Chabon, has deadly patches of dialogue that are riddled with nonsense jargon. It is hard to believe Chabon really a hand in this.

With these big science fiction and superhero movies, which audiences have been inundated with for decades now, success or failure is more and more dependent on story and character. The special effects alone are not going to do the trick anymore—and that goes for 3D, too. After more than two years of post-“Avatar” 3D, audiences are unimpressed unless the technology has a full-fledged movie to back it up, as in the case of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2” (2011), the best 3D film since “Avatar.”

“John Carter” is unlikely to be the franchise starter that Disney and all involved had hoped for.


John Carter – Taylor Kitsch

Dejah Thoris – Lynn Collins

Tars Tarkas – Willem Dafoe

Tal Hajus – Thomas Haden Church

Sola – Samantha Morton

Sab Than – Dominic West

Tardos Mors – Ciaran Hinds

Matai Shang – Mark Strong


A Walt Disney Pictures release.

Directed by Andrew Stanton.

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon.

Produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson, and Lindsey Collins.

Cinematography, Daniel Mindel.

Editing, Eric Zumbrunnen.

Original Music, Michael Giacchino.

Running time: 132 minutes.


Written by Jeff Farr