A long time ago in a not so distant galaxy, Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the world to a character, John Carter, who would shape Sci-Fi and fantasy tales for generations to come. His influence can be seen in anything from Star Wars to Avatar. One hundred years later, John Carter is finally getting the film treatment, unless you count the 2009 film starring Antonio Sabato Jr. - and you shouldn’t. John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton, (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) is good old-fashioned pulp entertainment that will leave you breathless - if you let it.
Movie Review: John Carter
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
March 15, 2012
Unfortunately, that is a very big if because a lot of people have long ago written off John Carter. There’s a stench of bad buzz that has been hanging over this movie way before anyone actually saw it. People have just been dying to come up with reasons to hate it. It seems that you hear more about the huge budget than the movie itself. And at $250 million - some say higher – the budget is huge but it’s hardly the most expensive movie ever. People have also been trying to make a big deal out the fact that the movie’s title was altered. It’s as if to say that changing the movie’s name from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter is some sort of proof that the movie is terrible. Unfortunately, not even the movie’s biggest supporter - which might actually be me - could defend John Carter’s atrocious marketing.
But now that we’ve dealt with the 500 pound Thark in the room, let’s talk about the movie. I won’t even bother trying to get into all of the plot points because it’s so convoluted that it’s almost impossible to understand - or even care about - everything that is going on in this film. So let’s stick to what you do need to know. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a world weary Civil War vet, on the Confederate side, in search of some gold only he believes exists. In fact most people think he is crazy and that includes the colonel (Bryan Cranston) trying to convince Carter to fight for him. But soon our hero comes into the possession of a magic medallion that transports him to Mars (called Barsoom by its natives). There he takes up with some Tharks - huge, green, four armed creatures. Carter finds something worth fighting for and of course gets the girl.
There is a lot to like about John Carter. It’s just too bad that at times those things get buried underneath a sea of bland CGI. That’s not too say that the movie is nearly as effects crazy as a lot of people would have you believe. This isn’t Transformers - which was more of an excuse to blow things up than a movie - but at times John Carter seems to be burdened by its budget. It seems like they had to justify the money spent by loading it with inconsequential special effects. But even so, there are a few CGI heavy scenes that resonate on an emotional level and provide a genuine sense of danger.
One particular scene, in which Carter slays countless Tharks, initially looks like a pointless excuse to show off the movie’s budget. Then, something strange happens. The scene is intercut with flashbacks of Carter back on earth as he’s burying his wife. This not only adds pathos to the events but it also reminds you of the real consequence of war - death. That’s not something that usually comes to mind when we see a movie’s hero casually mowing down the enemies. Another scene in which Carter fights a giant white ape in an arena also stands out because it is genuinely thrilling and there is a real sense of danger to it.
But the best parts of the movie are the quieter ones, the ones where Carter is establishing new relationships among other characters and his new surroundings. I especially enjoyed the initial meeting between Carter and Tars Tarkas, (William Dafoe) a Barsoomian warrior. Watching the two of them trying to figure each other out is one of the movie’s great delights. And there are plenty of enjoyable moments, but just how much fun they are depends on the viewer. The scene in which Carter realizes that he can jump incredibly high because of the planet’s low gravity is really fun. I thought seeing him struggle to simply stay on ground was really cool, but I could picture some viewers rolling their eyes or thinking it’s a bit cheesy. The same can be said about the movie’s running joke regarding the Tharks’ misunderstanding of Carter’s name.
The movie also benefits from having a very dedicated cast. John Carter is a prototypical hero, so a portrayal could easily come off as bland, but Kitsch does a really good job. He gives a very committed performance that is both endearing and engaging. It never feels like he is sleepwalking through his role. The same can be said about Lynn Collins (who previously shared the screen with Kitsch in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as the princess Dejah Thoris. Collins brings a welcome fire to her role and has great chemistry with Kitsch. But Dafoe has the most memorable performance. He makes Tars Tarkas the most interesting character, which is no small feat since we never actually see the actor.
I have to admit I was a bit worried that Stanton’s first live action film would be such a big budget release. I had the same concerns with Brad Bird directing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and I am glad to say that I was wrong on both cases. Stanton shows a deft hand at directing actors and he gets great performances from his cast. Above all, he is a great visual story teller. Understanding the power of fear left unseen, he frames various shots that leave the action just outside the frame. It raises the tension as it slowly reveals the danger the characters are facing.
But don’t get me wrong. The movie is definitely not perfect. At times it tries so hard to impress with CGI that it is hard to follow the action. And for a movie with such a big budget, the special effects look a bit cheesy in various parts. This is especially evident in the earlier parts of the movie as Carter is learning to jump. I’ve seen Smallville do the same thing more convincingly – and it obviously had a much smaller budget. It’s also kind of hard to really care about the big conflict on the planet or even tell the two sides apart. One side wears blue capes, the other red? And like most movies these days, it goes a bit crazy with plot twists. Seriously, when did happily ever after stop being good enough?
It’s almost too bad that the studio tried so hard to attract every demographic because the movie - like John Carter himself - might not be for everyone. It definitely has its flaws and Stanton didn’t knock it out of the park like Bird did with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but John Carter is definitely a lot of fun. It’s like watching an old pro come out of retirement to show these young cats how it’s done. So ignore the noise and sit back and enjoy. You’ll believe a man can jump really high...and it’s awesome.