It is with a heavy heart that I report to you about the John Carter footage screened at the D23 Expo. Quite simply I did not like it.
I’m a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’m quite willing to be forgiving of any film version of them. They’re tough to adapt and, what’s worse, Burroughs’ books have been so picked clean by other scifi properties that everything unique and original any movie version of them could actually feel derivative of the stuff that ripped him off.
With that open mind I watched a couple of scenes from John Carter and found myself hugely disappointed. The clips showed that Andrew Stanton can do live action filmmaking. He understands how to shoot a scene, where to place his camera. Even the editing seemed good. It’s just that the basic creative choices he has made on this film feel very, very wrong.
The movie looks like Prince of Persia, with a boring, dusty setting and silly armor. The Tharks, the race of green Martians, are almost cartoony, a choice that was certainly purposeful - probably to avoid the Uncanny Valley. John Carter’s Martian pet, Woola, has a very broad, almost Prequel design to him. And Taylor Kitsch is, quite simply, awful in the scenes we saw.
In fact I joked that the film seems to proceed from the assumption that the only thing wrong with Prince of Persia was that Jake Gyllenhaal was too charismatic. Kitsch plays John Carter blankly, with nothing going on behind his fake beard. That’s based on two clips when Carter first comes to Mars, but a third scene - a heavily emotional one obviously later in the film - has Kitsch being just as blank. His lack of presence is made all the more obvious by Lynn Collins, whose Dejah Thoris comes across as vibrant and even a touch broad.
That broadness is actually welcome. John Carter is based on pulp material, but what Stanton has delivered seems - from these clips - to be sort of stiff. There’s a nice moment of weird science fiction in the first clip when Carter, new to Mars, discovers a Thark egg hatchery, which of course happens to be hatching at that exact moment. It’s exactly odd enough to be unique and fun, but then Carter meets his first Tharks and it gets stiff all over again.
The film appears to be partially wedded in the Western genre, a decision that probably seemed smarter before Cowboys & Aliens, and that might explain some of the stiffness. Modern directors appear to have lost sight of the fact that Westerns, for the longest time, were the dumb fun movies of their day. They weren’t all Leone epics or Eastwood meditations on violence.
Anyway, the film looks competent, but there’s nothing I saw that thrilled me, or told me this would be fun. Stanton may be approaching John Carter as a hundred year old story instead of as a lowbrow piece of entertainment. And he’s definitely approaching the production design from an extremely boring place.
The final clip we saw was Carter and Tars Tarkas (a mocapped Willem Dafoe) fighting for their lives in an arena against the White Ape of Mars. The design of the ape was good, but this scene showed the problem with adapting the Barsoom series now - we’ve seen this exact scene a hundred times over the years. Burroughs was one of the first, but he wasn’t one of the first to get on screen. Unfortunately this scene is going to make people think of Attack of the Clones - I already heard that comparison at D23.
Maybe I’m wrong. My assumptions are based on a few minutes of footage. I feel fairly confident in my Kitsch assessment - between this and Battleship I hope he enjoys his stardom while it lasts - but maybe the rest of the film does capture the fun tone of the pulp stories. Although I fear that the movie’s Prequel feeling will extend here, where the main story isn’t that much fun and then a bunch of cute, weird CG creatures are called in to be comic relief.
I want to be wrong! I want to love John Carter! I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid and discovered the exciting, crazy and sexy covers in my dad’s book collection*. But I can only report honestly what I’ve seen, and what I’ve seen bummed me out.
* How late can you put in a footnote? During the presentation Andrew Stanton sort of downplayed the famous Frank Frazetta version of John Carter, saying that he got his intro from the Marvel Comics version. I wonder if that’s the problem here, that he never embraced the silly, macho, sexy side of the story.