Mark Reviews Movies

John Carter


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Andrew Stanton

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Bryan Cranston, the voices of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 3/9/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 8, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs' tale of an ordinary man who mysteriously transports to Mars, first serialized in 1912, is the template for just about every piece of fantastical science fiction that has come after. As just about any source will tell you, it's pulp through and through.

A regular man finds himself in the midst of a conflict in which he has no stake until he eventually gets too caught up in it to turn back; that he gains extraordinary powers because of the effects gravity has his physiology is, of course, helpful. A group of odd creatures takes him in and teaches him the ropes. A beautiful princess is in distress, though she's a capable enough warrior that she saves the hero a few times on her own. A genocidal madman wants to conquer everything, while an enigmatic and almost spiritual presence works to ensure that the villain does to fulfill his own ends.

As a result of a century's worth of cinema inspired either directly or indirectly by the material, John Carter, an adaptation of the first book in Burroughs' series A Princess of Mars, feels all-too familiar. This alone isn't a detriment to the movie, as, again, a century's worth of similar fare that can also at times feel the same way proves, but there's something incomplete about the whole affair. Like any template, it has the skeleton but is missing the meat.

A prologue puts us into the thick of things on Mars, called Barsoom by the native inhabitants. Large airships engage in battle, as the kingdom of Helium battles their perennial enemy Zodanga—both populated by humanoids—led by Sab Than (Dominic West), who has plans to dominate the dying planet. Matai Shang (Mark Strong), of a race of beings called Therns that purport to be messengers of the planet's goddess, offers Than an ultimate weapon—a wiry death ray of sorts that attaches to the user's arm and emits the same mystifying blue plasma that Shang can control. There are a lot of mysterious things, people, and places with silly names—none of them ever really explained—at play here.

Back in time and on Earth in 1868, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, devoid of personality), a former Confederate soldier, was searching for gold in Arizona when he found an otherworldly cave. There's a lot more beforehand, mostly involving him attempting to escape the custody of a colonel (Bryan Cranston) who wants Carter to help stave off the local Apaches; Carter has decided, he repeatedly tells anyone and everyone who will listen, to avoid war in the future.

Anyway, in the cave, one of those weird Therns appears. Carter kills him in self-defense, takes his mystical medallion, and unintentionally transports to Barsoom, where he discovers he has superhuman strength and the ability to make long leaps. He settles in with the Tharks, warrior creatures that are like the little green men of fables except that they are tall and have four arms (They are green, though), led by Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe) and meets Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of Helium. She had been developing a technology based on the Ninth Ray of legend, which would harness the same power the Therns have, and that would be bad for Therns or something or other.

These types of stories are best reduced to their simplest, purest level, but the screenplay by director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon is dedicated to maintaining the lexicon of Barsoomian terms that Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara as a young man reading of his uncle's adventures) created to the point of distancing us from what's actually happening on screen. It doesn't help that the story becomes unwieldy from a multitude of subplots involving the supporting characters, such as Tars Tarkas' rivalry for leadership of the Tarks with Tal Hajus (voice of Thomas Haden Church), the question and implications of Sola (voice of Samantha Morton) being Tars Tarkas' daughter, and the political maneuvers of Dejah's father (Ciarán Hinds), who thinks he can ensure peace between Helium and Zodanga by having his daughter marry Than.

All of these have the capacity to illuminate the characters, but they are far too undercooked to accomplish that. The characters, as a result, suffer a similar fate. The Tarks have the most distinctive personality of them all—a merciless tribe of warriors with a peculiar philosophy.

Instead, Stanton, making his live-action debut, is more concerned with the sights of Barsoom than the people and beings that populate it. Like the story, the setting—even though it's realized with successful special effects and production design—is underwhelming in its scope. There are genuinely inspired ideas behind some of this material (The Tharks' desert huts and the vague grandeur of Helium notwithstanding), like Zodanga, a mobile city with massive and grinding legs, and the airships, which offer Carter the opportunity to leap from one to another while fighting off hostile forces.

There is all of this, yet there's also an undeniably jovial spirit to the movie that keeps perfectly in line with the Saturday Matinee Serial feel of the material. John Carter is simply lacking the narrative polish to go along with it.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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