jason stives reviews the first big epic of the year …
The real trouble that lies in John Carter (sans of Mars) is not in the film itself — but the media’s perception surrounding the colossal $250 million budget, negative word of mouth from a lot of critics, and the overall lack of audiences knowing what they are getting into. The expectation lies in two folds for die-hard cult fans of the books and critics seeing why this film was worth its price tag. In truth, John Carter is not a horrible film. In fact, it’s quite good when it wants to be, only being weighed down by some lack of character development and a sluggish two-hour, 15-minute running time that crams too much into (surprisingly) too little a space.
Having only read the first of the Barsoom series (Princess Of Mars) when I was young, my recollections on the whole of John Carter’s world are scarce. But from what I do remember, the film is very faithful to the source material: Virginian John Carter is a former Confederate soldier, downtrodden by a lack of relevance in the changing world of 1860s America, until one day when he is transported to Mars by a transmat device by a race called The Therns. Mars, or Barsoom as it is called in the native language, is at war amongst the kingdoms of Helium and Zodanga. The only possible peace (as it always seems to be) is for the leader of Zodanga named Sab Than (The Wire‘s Dominic West) to wed the princess of Helium, Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins). Carter, a man who chose fighting sides once, initially refuses to help either side but, eventually (surprise, surprise) the young Virginian finds a cause and decides to fight for the freedom of Barsoom. In between all this, he befriends the green Martians known as Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas.
For someone like me, this is a classic sci-fi tale of the conquest of man in a strange and uncivilized world. For newcomers, that last paragraph was probably a lot to take in and confused the hell out of you. Even for someone who was at least familiar with the setup, the dizzying pace at which the history of Barsoom is thrown at the audience in the prologue is baffling and every bit confusing. The trouble with adapting something like John Carter to film is a need to feel loyal to a specific audience, putting the fans before the general audience, so what is presented is unexplainable for a portion of the film. Even the names of the characters seem a bit medieval in context, but it’s a rich environment nonetheless, helped by a copious amount of CGI effects.
The real trouble is the cast. The characters are given a blueprint for the audience to pick up on, but they are underdeveloped and run a gambit of typical situations and overcoming specific odds. While some critics have said that star Taylor Kitsch walks through the role of John Carter with a series of poses and facial expressions, this isn’t his fault — this is the writing. Kitsch is perfectly believable albeit less mighty than what one might hope someone like Carter to be. We know very little about John other than in brief flashbacks, at which point we know something horrible has scarred his faith in living and in humanity. Other than that, we don’t feel particularly confident about Carter as our protagonist and Barsoom’s savior until the third act of the film, at which point Kitsch turns him into the larger than life figure he should be. What we know about Carter just doesn’t seem enough, even with his sudden super human strength and ability to leap high into the air because of the planet’s gravity doesn’t really invoke a shade of confidence in why he is so special.
Same goes for Lynn Collins as Princess Deja, who besides some excellent muscle tone and a charming navel is running through the motions of the Princess looking to be more than just a hand for the king to hold and to fight for her people. If there are any standouts, it’s in Willem Defoe’s portrayal of Tars Tarkas, head of the Tharks, who gives the boisterous image that he has always had in some of his more larger-than-life roles. Mark Strong also proves to be stoic and threatening as the leader of the Therns, Matai Shang. Strong’s constantly dark and ominous voice is perfect for explaining any devious plan, even if it meant just spiking the punch at a party.
So the real issues are in understanding and development, but what does work is the overall sense of fun the world of Barsoom invokes. Painstakingly crafted, the world of Mars and its many kingdoms looks great visually and really creates a prominent landscape that had there not been too much explained would be a great world to explore. While I am a vocal non-fan of Avatar, the one thing that lacks here in this world that Avatar achieved in theirs was a sense of exploration to the world. Here, the landscape, with its sprawling mountains and valleys, is a series of points Carter and company must get through to achieve potential salvation.
Amongst the many highlights, though? Phenomenal action sequences, one in particular — which echoes Attack Of The Clones — involves Carter in an arena-like battle with two blind white apes, which results in heads rolling and blue alien blood being shed in abundance. There is something for the family, though, in Woola, the Martian beastie who looks like a cross between a pug and an alien rock. He is quite amusing with his breakneck speed and the overall stupidity in his eyes that just makes him amusing more than he is pointless. The sense of adventure is present midway through the film, thanks to pacing the first third of the film needed, as well as the ever present awesomeness of Michael Giacchino’s soaring score.
While many purists have hammered this out already it’s important to note that the key to John Carter is Edgar Rice Burrough’s series has been the template for many science-fiction classics. So if it seems familiar, it should. People like George Lucas and James Cameron have been vocal about the influence John Carter has had on contemporary science-fiction stories, and sadly the wait to get this story told on screen has exhausted it of its resources. The trouble ultimately is a sense of knowing and caring and considering in the 100 years since its first publication it has taken 70 of those years to get it to the big screen, John Carter has been drained of the elements that made it so inspirational to begin with.
John Carter is ultimately in presentation part Flash Gordon and part Dune, a film that tries to be ambitious in a very progressive time but ultimately hits a familiar blockade. Due to some poor character structure and a marginal lack of pace in its setup and overall execution, it falls short of being truly memorable, but it also acts as a strong reminder (at least for this reviewer) of why science fiction is so important and mesmerizing generation after generation.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (Good, not Great)