Review: John Carter


In terms of the film’s success, the actual quality of John Carter doesn’t even matter anymore. The film’s marketing has been so thoroughly bungled that there’s only a very small chance that the film will make up its $250 million plus budget. Could Disney have somehow managed to pull off a decent marketing job with better trailers, a more focused look at what the movie’s actually about, and a billboard campaign that isn’t only selling Taylor Kitsch, a talented but still virtually unknown actor? At this point, it’s an immaterial discussion. The movie is finally out, and we can finally answer that most important of questions: is it really any good?

John Carter is a good movie, Barsoom fans can be relieved to hear, but only just.

John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: March 9th

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a lost man, wandering the plains of Arizona after the Civil War in search of a fortune or a way to forget his troubled past. In the midst of an altercation with US soldiers and an Apache tribe, he finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars (known as Barsoom to the natives), where due to the lower gravity and the density of his bones he has superhuman strength and leaping power. Does that make sense, scientifically? No. Just go with it, though. The books the film was based on were written in 1917, and I’m reasonably sure science didn’t exist until Albert Einstein. Once on Mars, he quickly finds himself embroiled in a civil war between the warring cities of Helium and Zodanga, crowned a sort of warlord of the green Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and tasked with safeguarding the princess of the Martian city of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from the evil machinations of warlord Sab Than (Dominic West), who’s backed by the mysterious and powerful Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

Still with me? You’ve learned one of John Carter‘s biggest problems; it’s convoluted as all hell. Sab Than must marry Dejah Thoris in order to complete Matai Shang’s master plan, which is explained only in the broadest of strokes. The barbarous Tharks, an interesting group in their own right, serve mostly for John Carter to whip them up into a war on the Zodangans for the final act. The plot’s got more holes than a loose women and rum frigate going through pirate territory.

Fortunately, a set of charismatic performances from Taylor Kitsch (who really deserves a more solid shot at becoming a star than this) and Lynn Collins manage to help coast through the funkier moments of the plot. Also, there’s a ten-footed dog-thing named Woola that runs super fast and is utterly adorable. I dare you not to smile when you see him.

I told you!

There’s also an odd pacing problem here. There’s a decent amount of mystery in the framing story surrounding the film about the untimely death of John Carter and his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading about Carter’s adventures on Barsoom through his diary. Yes, that’s the same Edgar Rice Burroughs that wrote the original books. It’s the same device used in A Princess of Mars. I legitimately enjoyed getting Carter’s earthbound back story immediately up to reaching Barsoom. From there, things proceed at a breakneck pace for about half the movie, when the balloon just deflates. Odd, as the biggest action set pieces all occur within the last half of the film, but the plot gets so bogged down with attempts to awkwardly lay in some last-minute world building.

The main appeal here is the action, really, and it’s more than competently done. Cutting edge visual effects manage to sell the large number of digital Tharks quite well, as well as believably creating John Carter’s spectacular leaping and fighting abilities. You’ve got mid-air battles between solar-powered sail barges, massive armies attacked by a lone warrior, and giant monsters, all convincingly and excitingly choreographed. The action has a tendency to suffer in 3D, as the camera is moving just a little too fast to properly function with post-processed 3D, so I’d save your money and catch it in 2D if you can.

There was a lot of potential in John Carter. There’s this tremendously strange and fun pulp sci-fi universe to draw on that really only gets hinted at in bits and pieces within the film. There’s the possibility of battles and fights on a massive scale that never really come to fruition. John Carter fights a flying man for about thirty seconds, and it’s entirely indoors. Think of the possibilities if they’d just been allowed to go outside! We get a taste of what these various races of Martians are like, as a culture, but we’re never given enough to go on other than “noble savages” or “proud warrior scientists” or “bad guys.” There’s the skeleton of a truly epic film on the same scale as Avatar or the Star Wars films, but there’s just not enough oomph in the film or willingness to take the risks on such big ideas. You can tell that Andrew Stanton had a lot of passion for the project, as it really shines through when the film’s on a high spot.

Despite all this, John Carter is an entertaining matinee, some decent filler on a lazy weekend. You’ll go in and have a good enough time, but there’s only the occasional glimmer of the wonder and the brilliance of the original novels.

Jenika Katz – I love stories about other worlds. If it’s about another planet or an underground city or a little house under the floorboards, I’m there. The one thing I’ve been consistently disappointed with, however, is that movies about other worlds tend to be truncated by necessity, and the books they’re usually based on are almost invariably better, if only due to their ability to flesh out the details. I have not read John Carter, but I get the impression that that is the case here as well. There are a lot of allusions to deeper relationships and certain cultural phenomenons of Mars that seem like they’re based on a more complete history that is sadly not present in the movie. This goes beyond the environment and into the character development. A lack of interpersonal connection and flat performances combine to make a group of characters that are hard to care about despite the feeling that they might be worth the concern. The story itself is engaging, but while John Carter’s movements are exciting, the actual fights are rather anticlimactic. Seeing it in post-converted 3D only makes what action there is harder to process. It’s not a bad movie, and it’s worth a matinee viewing, but it’s certainly not what it could have been. 68- Decent.

Matthew Razak – I just had fun at John Carter. Stupid, old school, science fiction fun. It’s the kind of science fiction that doesn’t get bogged down in the science part and fully embraces the fiction. I won’t say it’s great as the plotting and screenplay are cheesy as anything, but as long as you don’t mind some pulp its just damn fun. The women are scantly clad, the men don’t wear shirts and the evil is just, well, evil. It’s the kind of film that’s just plain fun to watch, plus there’s a cute dog alien thing. I wouldn’t drop extra money on the 3D, although it doesn’t hurt it like Clash of the Titans. There’s plenty of action to keep your mind away from the rushed story and while it can get convoluted at times if you just remember the plots of all the films that John Carter samples from you should be good to go. Originality is not the movie’s strong suit, but it delivers up itself in such an open way that you can’t get upset about it. 75 – Good.