John Carter (2012)

JOHN CARTER

I can’t help but feel like Disney didn’t want anybody to see this movie, starting with the very name itself. Originally called “John Carter of Mars,” as the character is known in the Burroughs stories, Disney decided that “Mars” in the title would be a turn-off.  It’s absurd considering nearly the entire movie is set on Mars! (If you’ve never read the stories, then I apologize for the spoiler.) The truncated title has all the excitement of filing your taxes, and the trailers were equally boring – the cinematic equivalent of Do Not Enter signs.  It’s a shame that Disney didn’t have more faith in their audience or their film.

Disney’s John Carter is grand, it is epic – and as granny used to say, it’s a hot mess. The story is so ambitious that bringing it to the big screen was no small feat, and all previous attempts have failed, including a feature length animated film that was started back in the 1930s. To their credit, Disney tried to do everything right by this movie. Mark Andrews (The Incredibles) and Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) were brought in from Pixar to write and direct, and Pullitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon was brought in as co-writer. They employed a boatload of notable effects companies, each assigned to a specific aspect of the demanding special effects. Taylor Kitsch, (Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) does an admirable job as the title character, and Lynn Collins as Deja Thoris is so stunning you can’t take your eyes off of her. All the ingredients are there, but like some giant soufflé gone wrong, it ends up falling in the middle. [minor spoilers ahead]

Deja Thoris

Deja Thoris

The movie begins with Civil War veteran John Carter sending an urgent telegram to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is summoned to his uncle’s mansion in Virgina. Upon arrival, Burroughs discovers that his uncle has passed away and he is the sole beneficiary of his uncle’s estate – which includes strange artifacts, drawings, and a mysterious journal.

From this point on, the story unfolds from the pages of the journal – a device that’s quickly forgotten as the movie jumps right into the action, and doesn’t surface again until nearly the end. After having discovered a “cave of gold,” John Carter is conscripted into the US Army to fight against the Indians in the western territories. Carter is much more interested in gold than fighting, so he manages to escape both the Indians and the Army by fleeing into the mountains. He takes shelter in a cave with strange wall carvings, and finds himself transported in a flash of light to a vast desert expanse.

Carter soon discovers that he’s 30 million miles from home, in the middle of another civil war – this time between the various tribes of Mars. This is where the movie begins to display some of the familiar characteristics of a cheesy Disney family flick:  cuddly critters, an evil prince, and a princess in need of some saving by the hero (although Deja Thoris is a kick-ass warrior, to be sure.)  The battle scenes are epic and the bad guys satisfyingly evil.  And the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks are some of the better CGI characters that I’ve seen. But the middle of the movie turns into a jumbled mess, as otherwise minor problems begin to pile on top of each other.

John Carter battles the White Ape

John Carter Battles the White Ape

The pacing is uneven – sometimes the action happens so fast you lose track of the story, at other times things get bogged down by dialog. Tars Tarkas and his struggle to lead his fellow Tharks provide some interesting subplot, but in the heat of  battle everything with green skin and four arms all starts to look alike. There seems to be too many principal characters to keep track of – a problem which isn’t helped by the fact that one of them has shape-shifting abilities and can morph into other people.

But even during the times when the movie drags or gets hard to follow, there’s almost always something cool to look at – strange flying machines and steampunky mechanisms made of bronze, iron, and stone – and of course there’s also Lynn Collins.

The story concludes with Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter’s journal, which is a little jarring considering we haven’t seen either for the past two hours. (I probably won’t find too many people who would share this opinion, but I think flashing back to Burroughs and the journal at various points might have provided some welcome narration and made things a little less cumbersome.) And just as the movie falls into an uncontrolled spin bound for certain doom, the ending swoops in like MacGyver, grabs the controls and saves the day.

In fact, the last 15 minutes really turned the tide for me, and it also set things up for a sequel which is something I’d actually welcome. Again, I’m probably in the minority here but I enjoyed John Carter despite all its flaws.

Something that does really disappoint me are the comments I’ve heard accusing John Carter of being derivative, or a rip-off of films like Star Wars and Avatar. To those people I say, pick up a freakin’ book. The original John Carter stories were published 100 years ago, and you can be sure that all of the aforementioned films owe at least some of their heritage to Burroughs.

Final Verdict: John Carter makes for a fun matinee but the drag in the middle will make little kids and ADHD adults restless, and the 3D version doesn’t add much to the experience, so save the extra three bucks for popcorn.

Rating: 3/5 ★★★☆☆ 

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About Dave_P

Dave_P studied fine arts and film history and is a graphic and web designer, and a diehard movie fan. David has been involved with a variety film festivals including the Cinephile Film Festival, the PRIDE Film festival, and the Manhattan Short Film festival, and is currently the director of the Dark Carnival Film Fest in Bloomington, Indiana. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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