Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John Carter Might Look Good On The Big Screen, But . . .

The Good: Visually engaging, Moments of action
The Bad: Acting is largely terrible, Light on character development, Plot is mundane at best.
The Basics: When John Carter is taken off to Mars, the viewer is given a visual marvel that is ultimately insubstantial.

Every year, it seems, I get my hopes up for a movie I truly know nothing about. Sure, I’m jazzed for Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers later this year, but when I saw the trailers for John Carpenter, I thought I would root for this strange, wonderful-looking science fiction epic. Having attended a preview screening of the film, I am once again in that place I too-often find myself after I get my hopes up; I am disappointed. In the case of John Carter, I am not sure if “utterly disappointed” applies, but I do know I am pretty disappointed.

The source of my disappointment is simple: John Carter is campy, poorly-acted and in so many ways mundane. What looked like it would be a sprawling epic turns into a series of obvious conflicts with a protagonist who is hardly worth rooting for. Instead, I spent much of the time watching John Carter waiting for something – anything – to happen that would make me care about the title character. Unfortunately, that moment never came and I left the more than two hour movie feeling bored. It is also worth noting that I have not read any of the books upon which John Carter is based. As a result, this is a very pure review of the film John Carter.

John Carter, who fought for the Confederate Army and has ended up in Arizona looking for gold. Chased by Powell and a group of Native American Indians, John Carter is abducted and taken to Mars. On Mars, he quickly discovers that the lower gravity affords him greater strength and agility than he ever had on Earth. Joining the green Martian Tharks – they call Mars “Barsoom” – Carter fights his way to a prominent position in the tribe and he begins to find life on Mars more worthwhile than his terrestrial life.

When the Tharks capture Dejah Thoris, a red-skinned Martian from the Helium tribe, John Carter feels the abduction is unjust. Liberating her, Carter flees with her. Her rescue puts Carter at the center of planetwide conflicts that force him to use his strength, stamina and smarts to both survive and unify the fractured planet.

I’m not exactly sure who John Carter is intended for, other than those who are already fans of the pulp science fiction novels upon which the movie is based. John Carter suffers from being seriously campy and campy in an earnest way. John Carter is campy in the way that Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow mercilessly parodied, but John Carter does not seem to realize it is truly that hokey. Instead, the film progresses with a serious tone even through its more unintentionally laughable moments. It’s like Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (reviewed here!) but set on Mars. It has one gimmick, a lot of special effects and ultimately adds up to nothing at all impressive or in the range of its potential.

Like The Sands Of Time, Disney assembled a surprisingly wonderful cast for John Carter, with Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Hayden Church and Bryan Cranston all appearing physically or as CG constructs with their vocal talents. John Carter has a suitably impressive cast . . . for the supporting parts.

What John Carter lacks entirely is a performance by the lead protagonist that sells the new reality to the audience. Taylor Kitsch is, in a word, horrible as the title character. To be fair to Kitsch, John Carter is a sword and sorcery type fantasy movie set on Mars and it seems like one of the big criteria for the character of John Carter has to be that he looks damn good without a shirt on. In that regard, Kitsch delivers. But beyond that, he is utterly unlikable in the role of John Carter. Kitsch is stiff, distant and physically withdrawn far too often to make John Carter a likable or plausible protagonist. Instead, he lacks a spark or any sense of quirky individuality that would otherwise sell the viewer on such a fantastic character. John Carter may be disaffected and morose, but Kitsch seems that way playing him.

Kitsch is paired with Lynn Collins, whose primary qualification seems to be that she looks good and is near the height of Taylor Kitsch. Her bright eyes look more vacant than expressive far too often.

While John Carter has fairly decent computer-generated effects, the 3-D effects are nothing to write home about. I was much more impressed by the effects in the reworked 3-D version of The Phantom Menace. While one might expect the digital landscapes of Mars to be wonderful in the 3-D medium, director Andrew Stanton does not make very good use of the technology. As well, John Carter suffers from editing that ranges from mediocre to terrible. There are a number of sequences that feature awkward cuts and surprisingly rough transitions.

Ultimately, John Carter is a science fiction epic that does not engage the viewer or make a bolder statement than “look at what we can put on screen.” Sadly, that is not enough.

For other Disney live-action works, please check out my reviews of:
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Tron: Legacy
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time
Alice In Wonderland
Old Dogs
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl
The Princess Diaries


For other movie reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movie reviews I have written.

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Good review. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back. Check out mine when you can.

  2. Glad you liked it! Will check yours out! Thanks!