Reviewed by Galen Strickland
A lot has already been said and written about this film and I'll probably be referencing some of that with my comments. I have seen it twice now, enjoyed it much more the second time, although I still have my reservations about rating it at this time. It seems a sure thing that it will be considered a flop, but that is just financially speaking. As a film and as an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories it should be considered successful. I'm not a fan of the first book, A Princess of Mars, which I am in the process of reading (or attempting to read at least) for the second time. If I had encountered it as a teenager my reaction would probably have been different, but the writer's style and the content doesn't appeal to me. I'm not saying it is a bad novel, and certainly not that John Carter is a bad movie, just that neither appeals to me that much.
The major problem with the film is not the quality of the content, but rather people's perception of that content. Most movie-goers are not going to be familiar with Burroughs' books, and thus have no idea who John Carter is or why they should care. Secondly, even the least intelligent of them knows that conditions on Mars are totally at odds with what is shown on screen. At least I can approach this film from an SF fan's perspective of alternate realities, but director Andrew Stanton should have realized that the majority could not. Add to that the fact that themes and concepts from the books have been utilized by many other writers and filmmakers over a long period of time, and you end up with a well produced, directed and acted film that feels totally derivative. One example of that; I saw a preview of the upcoming Wrath of the Titans both times. A preview of most of the action scenes from John Carter would strike most viewers as very similar. In the case of Titans most are familiar with the previous film (or the original Clash of the Titans), or at least have some knowledge of the mythological stories from which it is derived. The alien creatures in John Carter will strike most people as derivative of Star Wars. Again, not a fault of the story or of the writers or of Stanton's direction, only that we've seen this sort of thing too many times already.
Let me get to the good stuff now. One thing I liked was the change in the way Carter got to Mars. Since I've never finished the first book nor read any of the sequels, I'm not sure if the method was ever explained, but somehow he was looking up at the night sky and simply wished himself across the vastness of space to the red planet. In the movie, there is a mysterious group of people known as the Thurns (sp?), and I believe they are from one of the later books, who have a means of matter transmission embodied in an amulet that each of them wears on a chain around their neck. Carter encounters one of them in a cave in the Arizona desert, and after shooting him in self defense he is touching the amulet as the Thurn recites an incantation that activates the device. Carter is instantaneously transported to Mars (Barsoom). From here the movie is entertaining, full of grand vistas of the desolate planet and intriguing alien creatures. Carter first encounters the Tharks, very tall, four-armed and green-skinned, who ride beasts of burden known as Banths. If that sounds familiar you're probably thinking of the Banthas that George Lucas "borrowed" from Burroughs and used in Star Wars. There is quite a bit of CGI in this film, actually more character animation than in any of Stanton's previous Pixar films, and the Tharks are the best part, not only in the way they are visually realized, but also in the nature of their society. In fact it is as easy to identify with several of them even more than it is for Carter or for the princess, Dejah Thoris, or any of the other "human" characters. The voice work for the Tharks is very good, very emotional, so good in fact that it is difficult to recognize the voices of otherwise familiar actors like Willem Dafoe, Polly Walker and Thomas Haden Church.
The cinematography is superb, along with the selection of location shooting, with Utah standing in for the bleak Barsoom. The FX are relatively seamless, with my only objection being several action scenes that were too cluttered to make out details of exactly what was happening, who was fighting whom, etc. But the FX also point out a few problems with the narrative as well. In the book, Carter has difficulty adjusting to the lighter gravity of Barsoom, and finds he can jump great distances. The movie duplicates that, but unfortunately maybe too well. The height and distance of some of Carter's jumps is exaggerated to such an extent that it seems ludicrous. Mars has just one-third the gravity of Earth, but they make it look more like one-tenth or less. Plus several of the times Carter lands after one of those jumps should have incapacitated him. The airships and some of the weaponry used are impressively rendered, but they also point out the inconsistency of swords being the primary mode of personal combat. In that way it is reminiscent of Dune, yet another story that owes a debt to Burroughs.
While the acting is good, or at least competent, I didn't feel much chemistry between John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). I don't have anything against Kitsch, except I think so far he has shown himself to be pretty much a one-note type of actor. Under the tutelage of a good acting coach he could improve, but he seems to be relying on his brooding good looks and stoic, James Dean-like persona a bit too much. I'm not sure how old Burroughs' character was supposed to be, and at 31 Kitsch is probably about right, but he seems much younger.
I know a lot of what I've said sounds negative, maybe more negative than I intended it to be, but I do hope the critics and pundits are wrong about the film's prospects. First, for the sake of Stanton, who has proved to be an extremely talented filmmaker. I would hate for this to derail his career. Second, for the sake of fans of Burroughs' books and of this movie. In spite of its faults and its similarity to previous movies, it would be nice to see it get another chance to woo the fickle audience (but at a lower budget next time). So my advice is to give it a chance, but don't wait too long. It will likely be out of theaters fairly quickly. I saw the 2D version both times, so I don't know if the 3D is worth the extra price most theaters charge. But you could do much worse, and truthfully there are many more movies that are derivative of past efforts being released all the time. I'd hate for anyone to think that the lame reboot of 21 Jump Street is actually worth their time, but if an exciting (if somewhat confusing) action-adventure film is more your speed, John Carter delivers a good bang for your buck.
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