John Carter (2012) Review
John Carter is a form of science fiction that is rarely -- if ever -- seen in this age of dark and brooding sci-fi/action films. While the marketing and previews may have made it look like a sci-fi epic similar to Star Wars or Avatar, it isn't akin to either one. Some plot points and story arcs may seem similar (this is due to the monomyth story type shared by most common stories), but the rest of the movie is completely its own brand of sci fi not seen in decades.
John Carter is pulp -- pure pulp fiction come to life on the screen not seen since the 1980s Flash Gordon. It is sci-fi pulp to its core complete with over-the-top costumes, impossibly beautiful women, otherworldly (yet oddly familiar) environments and muscle-clad heroes completing daring feats. It's a throwback to the heydays of sci fi, and for that, it succeeds very well.
The movie is based on the first of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs in which cavalryman John Carter is transported to a fantasy version of Mars where he enlists the help of both extraterrestrial and humanoid in the fight against those who threaten the red planet.
The film takes much of its story from the first book in the series, A Princess of Mars, in which Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) arrives on the planet and, due to the planet's low gravity, is able to perform nearly superhuman feats that attract the attention of the nomadic alien tribe, the Tharks and their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe).
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Carter is thrust into a war between the two humanoid civilizations of Helium and Zodanga with the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (played by Lynn Collins) caught in the middle. The two civilizations have been at war for thousands of years, and now that the leader of Zodanga is armed with a weapon that could annihilate the Mars civilization, the only solution for peace is in taking Dejah's hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, sinister otherworldy forces plot the destruction of Mars, and back on Earth, Carter's nephew (who is actually Edgar Rice Burroughs) slowly discovers just how his uncle managed to find his way to the red planet.
Carter is then called into action to protect the princess, befriend the Tharks, discover the sinister secret behind the Zodanga super weapon, and find a way back home. The little over two hours running time does not waste a single beat in setting up and explaining how the dynamics and factions of Barsoom work together and just how important Carter is as a savior for the planet and its people.
The story and its protagonist borrow heavily from the concept of the Hero's Journey, the archetypal tale of a hero who rises up, befriends many to aid him in his quest, and defeats evil in the end. You could hardly blame it for being derivative as its very origins were the basis for the Hero's Journey theory. However, it's not the story that suffers but rather the execution of the actors that hurt the dramatic tension and make an otherwise epic story into something more akin to a Sunday afternoon matinee.
Kitsch brings zero charisma to the role of John Carter and is instead a lifeless, one-sided, generic character. Where a hero should have compassion, understanding, and bravery, Carter seems exist as a tool for exposition -- to simply give the story and setting an excuse to move along from action scene to action scene. For instance, the first time Carter discovers his super strength and ability to jump higher than normal humans, the level of excitement and and wonder is utterly lacking for such a pivotal moment.
The other actors fare much better with Collins as a veritable, sensitive character who is also sympathetic and strong-willed. She never comes across as someone who is in need but rather someone who can hold her own and defend her people. She's a warrior princess akin to Princess Leia and does an incredible job of showing fierce devotion to her people and her innocent and curious attraction to the strange and alien John Carter.
Dafoe does an excellent job voicing Tars Tarkas, giving the entirely CGI character a much-needed presence and believability among his human counterparts. His gruff and warrior-like demeanor combined with his level of respect for Carter is something that ironically comes across as incredibly human. Out of all of the characters in the film, he was the most likable.
The visuals are a mixed bag. While some of the cities and alien creatures are visually impressive, and the costumes and weapons have the right amount of retro sci-fi flare, the Mars environment is boring. In the original stories, the planet was wildly diverse with all forms of both flora and fauna. In this movie, Mars looks like its real life counterpart, devoid of wonder and awe. You could argue that this is a more realistic approach, but wouldn't the fact that a human-like race living on Mars for thousands of years make the realistic argument moot?
I saw the movie on a digital IMAX screen in 3-D. The 3-D was decent with no detectable blurring or image discrepancy. However, a common flaw that exists with many theaters was also shared here. The 3-D effect made the movie's colors muted and seemed to dim much of the movie. Even considering the drab environments, the colors still looked noticeably muted and dull. There is nothing lost or gained by seeing it in 3-D, so 2-D is the way to go.
John Carter is a solid film, but don't go in expecting a sci-fi epic. It's pulp -- a cheesy sci-fi spectacle with the budget of a blockbuster. If you yearn for a big budget Flash Gordon or B movie flick, this is the movie for you. While it may not stand up to the sci-fi/fantasy heavyweights, it's still a fun flick and more than worth your time if you go with the right expectations.