I have a strict personal policy that I don’t walk out of movies. Most of the time, it’s really easy to adhere to this policy, but occasionally I’ll encounter a movie so bad that it’s a challenge to stick it out. But John Carter may be the first to put my will power to the test within the first two minutes, and then repeatedly thereafter for the next two hours.
To be fair, I usually try to avoid learning about a movie before I go to see it, so I really didn’t know much about John Carter except that it was set on Mars. But I really wasn’t expecting the absolute stupidity of the opening sequence, nor of the remainder of the film. That shot featured a flying ship setting down and unloading a whole bunch of gladiators to attack their enemies with swords. These people (or I guess technically Martians, but you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish them from Roman soldiers during the time of Christ) have the technology to make ships that fly on light and yet their weapons haven’t progressed beyond the Iron Age.
Things don’t get much better when we meet John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) for the first time and he is magically transported to Mars from late 1860s Arizona by a mysterious amulet he found in a cave. Before long, he finds himself in the middle of a three-way battle between the original human-looking Martians, a whole different set of human-looking Martians (with a really hot princess, played by Lynn Collins), and a third set of Martians who mostly look like humans except they’re green and they have tusks and four arms instead of two (one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe). The future of the planet is at stake, and that’s a big deal to all the Martians, but John just wants to get home to try to find his gold-filled cave.
It’s pretty clear that John Carter really wants to be Star Wars. Like Luke Skywalker, John returned home to find his family dead and house burned to the ground. Like Han Solo, John doesn’t care about the plight of those in the fight but just wants to get his gold, although he ultimately falls for the princess. Like young Anakin, he gets into a dangerous, high-speed pod race. There’s a magical force called the 9th ray. There are some poorly-conceived CGI creatures which will only have any appeal to children (or those with child-like intelligence). And yet I don’t think that even George Lucas in his most insane fever-driven bouts of revisionist madness would come up with something this lame.
The problems with the story of John Carter reach well beyond its poor choice of weapons and lack of originality. It’s made exceptionally clear in the film that they’re on Mars (when they could have just as easily made it a fictional location), and yet that world bears little resemblance to what we know about the planet, including its breathable atmosphere and healthy supply of water. John has the unique ability to jump incredible differences when no one else can, and this is a subject of quite a bit of fascination among the others, but only a halfhearted “maybe he has greater bone density” explanation was offered. The Martians were all initially speaking some alien language, and then all of a sudden everyone’s speaking English with nothing more than an “oh, I can understand you now” comment, and yet even after they’re all able to communicate they still can’t seem to get his name right. Wood and fabric are plentiful in the world, and yet vegetation is nonexistent.
I can appreciate trying to remain faithful to the source material, but in this case the source is literally a century old (published as a set of short stories in 1912). Our knowledge of Mars and flight and science fiction screenwriting has made dramatic strides since then, and it’s lazy and careless to ignore obvious problems. Even the work of a master like Jules Verne needs some updating on its way to the big screen, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is no Jules Verne.