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John Carter [Review]

Walt Disney and the director of Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton) bring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp hero from Mars to the big screen with the big-budget, 3D extravaganza John Carter. Big on effects, grand in scope, the film paints a high-action, pulpy science-fiction saga full of spectacle, beauty and romance with curious underlining father-and-daughter themes. The film struggles to get all its pieces to gel together with many elements far outshining others: where certain effects are brilliant and others are standard or sub-par; where some characters sparkles and stand out and others find them selves buried in the mix. The film embraces the pulp origins of the source material; and, while it brings some authenticity to the script, it also strikes an unfortunate contrast to the modern effects and actors.

The film’s story transports its title character, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), from Earth to Mars after a brief and amusing set up, casting Carter as a loner who has lost his family to war and searches for something to make him whole again. His search ends up sending him to Mars when he discovers an alien amulet. Once on Mars, called Barsoom by its natives, he gets involved in a war between two races of red skinned humanoids. He also becomes involved in a third race called Tharks, when he befriends their Jeddak, Tars Tarkas. The Tharks are a non-humanoid race with with green skin and four arms, standing over twelve feet tall. Carter discovers that the changes in atmosphere and gravity provide him the ability to jump great distance, in which the Tharks find great amusement. He is brought into the war between Tardos Mors and Sab Than when the beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris escapes her fate and lands in Carter’s lap. Even though he wishes to remain a loner, John Carter decides to stand next to Dejah Thoris and fight the evil mastermind, Matai Shang.

Star Taylor Kitsch brings a fair amount of eye candy and charisma to the lead character but falls short of bringing the level of presence needed to make John Carter stand out alongside all the special effects, stunning visuals, and fascinating aliens. He easily gets lost in all the grandiosity surrounding him. The role requires a little something special, a strong signature characteristic that allows the character to stand out above everything else. Regrettably, while Kitsch brings a heroic visage and an amusing sense of humor, he struggles to compete against the film itself. He also makes for a better Barsoom John Carter than an Earth-bound version, which makes him feel far more the man out of place and time than was intended. It’s not a bad performance – not by a long shot – but it is also not an outstanding performance either.

Where Kitsch struggles to find his Barsoom voice, co-star Lynn Collins excels in her role as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars from the source material’s title. She exudes both an exquisitely beautiful and fiercely strong presence as the female lead. She stands out among the din of Mars. She is far more majestic than the special effects, the 3D and the story itself. She is regal and charismatic; and, she has no trouble holding her own physically fighting alongside John Carter – to which the film frequently plays upon to comic effect. She is also quite striking among all the hype and spectacle in what should be a star-making performance. Collins’ confidence and bravura makes the audience want to see more of the Princess of Mars and care less if John Carter stays on Jasoom or returns to Barsoom.

The rest of cast doesn’t fare as well as Lynn Collins. Mark Strong returns to science fiction as Matai Shang, a mythical character that manipulates all the populations of Mars. He brings the same bland quality here as he did to Sinestro in Green Lantern with similar tone and execution. He certainly commands the scenes when he is on screen but the menace needed for his character is inadequate and underwhelming. Dominic West suffers the same fate as Sab Than, a conquering king of Mars and the right hand of Strong’s Shang. Instead of being complicated and rich, he comes off silly and emasculated. Both characters are far out shined by the power (special effects) they possess where it would be better suited if their personalities were the real threat. The voice actors (Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church) as the Tharks are excellent in their roles, allowing the characters to define their acting instead of the actors defining the characters. Samantha Morton brings a strong emotional tie to her role of Sola making a terrific companion to John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Bryan Cranston provides an entertaining supporting (albeit practically a cameo) appearance as a General Custer inspired Earthly role – a needed highlight early on.

The 3D of John Carter is excellent for what can be found in a converted 3D film. It compares strongly to films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. The vistas a beautiful providing depth and geography, which benefits the martian landscapes. The 3D is strongest when the airships are involved and the camera pulls back allowing the action to play out in full view. It also benefits from bright, colorful sets and lighting. However, the lack of contrast in those colors keeps the 3D from be spectacular. The conversion is also noticeable from time to time when the human characters feel flat compared to the many CGI generated characters they frequently share screen time with. Regrettably, John Carter fails to make the most of the 3D making the addition feel too reserved to be astonishing or engaging.

John Carter is a fun, nostalgic and pulpy adventure. Visually, it is stunning. The film suffers from its title character getting lost in all the exposition and special effects to set up Barsoom and all its inhabitants. Still the action is spectacular and rousing and, while somewhat disingenuous, the romance between Carter and Thoris is strong enough to make the audience care about their outcome. The biggest downside to the film is the lack of a strong villain, which makes the main conflict too understated to drive the film thematically throughout. It becomes a series of scenes tied together which is true to its serial, pulp origins. What it succeeds in doing is setting up expectation for a sequel. If nothing else, the film crafts a thrilling ending that has the audience ready for more; it’s a strong note to end on and one the positively color the film as a whole. Still John Carter manages to overcome its flaws to create a fun science fiction action film that deserves to be seen in the theater.

-Doc Rotten

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  • talnhess

    I pretty much agree with your assessment Doc. There’s a lot to like here, particularly with the second half of the movie full of a glorious spectacle of action sequences. 

    You’re right though: Earthbound John Carter is a waste. Taylor Kitsch wasn’t probably the best choice for Carter and the idea that he’s a heartbroken, haunted man doesn’t really work, especially as young as he feels at times. In fact, one of the film’s best sequences, as Carter deals with his haunted past through a cathartic battle with a different tribe of Tharks, is better conveyed through Michael Giacciano’s score than Kitsch’s acting. Still, Kitsch is a tolerable action hero and really comes to life in the second half of the movie. Just don’t expect much depth while he’s scheming and slicing up enemies.

    The effects are really a callback to ’80s sci-fi spectacles and several times I found myself thinking about Superman and Dune. I’m not sure that’s really a great compliment though, and some of the composite shots felt particularly weak. I didn’t see a 3D presentation of the film and I noticed some of the effects and composite shots were rather fuzzy, which makes me think they were designed for 3D and improperly converted to 2D.

    What I found most interesting about the film is the reciprocal cycle that has now been created. George Lucas admits Princess of Mars was an inspiration for Star Wars, but you can’t look at John Carter and say it wasn’t inspired by the visual style of Lucas’s creations, particularly the prequels. Considering the venom so many sci-fi/fantasy fans carry for the prequels, you’d think Stanton would want to avoid that comparison, but it’s practically impossible not to see it.

    All of that aside, Lynn Collins makes the whole movie worthwhile. She is awesome: a feral, fiery princess of Mars. I loved every moment she was on the screen, and not just because she’s incredibly easy on the eyes. I loved her take on the character: the strength and confidence she carried. If John Carter gave us nothing else, it gave us another incredible female figure (both literally and proverbally) for the cinematic world.

  • Doctor Rotten

    Nicely done! I think we are on the same page with this one. I especially like your comparisons to the Star Wars films with the inspiration being inspired by those it inspired (woot that paradox) – comparisons I did not immediately make (most likely due to some subconscious move to avoid that – speaking to the very reasons you mentioned). But, there they are in all their cinematic glory. That says a lot to the film’s heavy dependency upon world building. While the film builds quite A LOT of Barsoom, much of the world building is so broad the impact it should have in the story is confusing – as it is in much of the Star Wars prequels.

    Imagine how different this film would be if it was Princess of Mars and it was told from the perspective of Dejah Thoris, her people, her world, and then John Carter showed up. Who is this stranger? Where did he come from? Do I trust him? Can he help us? But, that is a bit sacrilege to the source material. IDK – just thinking out loud. (But I think that change may define Lois Lane to Superman – LOL) Also, it’s hard to market a Princess movie to teen boys. Sigh.

    I hope this film continues to do better box office overseas, enough to warrant further films. I personally would like to see more John Carter (of Mars).

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