A Film Review of “John Carter” by Alexander Morales
How about a game of Jeopardy?
The “Star Wars” Saga (most blatantly episodes 1 – 3), “Avatar,” “Stargate” and countless other space films have taken inspiration and ripped off the adventures of this (some say) literary classic character.
Who is John Carter and his Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom novels?
“John Carter,” Disney’s newest big budget barn burner is an action-packed space epic that unfortunately we have all seen before. Directed by Andrew Stanton (one of Pixar’s Academy award-gobbling creative talents), “Carter” is a bright, shiny example of what whole lot of money can make.
And basically that’s it.
Before I continue … does a movie that is 85 percent animated count as a live action film? Just something to think about.
As usual, I digress.
Story-wise, “Carter” is nothing special. It’s the run-of-the-mill outsider comes into a bad situation, can jump really high and somehow wins everyone over with his bravery, white skin and good looks. It’s pretty much the basis for all literature and films throughout history … well except for maybe the jumping thing. Truthfully, that’s really it. He is a little special since the story throws in the “fish-out-of-water” thing as a veteran of the Civil War becoming space hero … so that’s cool. Of course, like all things past that suddenly becomes hip, I found myself surrounded by nerds that scuffed throughout the film stating, “Oh they left out this,” and “Uh, they left out that.” To that I say “good!” While maybe it does leave out some of the events within the pages of “The Princess of Mars,” with a running of way too long and 25 minutes; it needed stuff left out.
Honestly, the film works wonderfully when the story is grounded safely on Earth. The steam, rain and textures of our post Civil War/Industrial Revolution all feel real and keep the film from firmly falling flat in its face. As a character, Carter feels more real and actually presents a motivation that feels genuine and has purpose behind it. Plus, we get a little Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) action and anything he touches with his acting chops turns to gold.
However, used too far between and too little, Earth is just a small section of expansive space and this story.
As leading man John Carter, Taylor Kitsch walks the border of “hate him” and “love him.” Fortunately, Kitsch won me over long ago with his perfectly portrayed portrait of Mr. Tim Riggins – the amazingly undervalued core of television’s “Friday Night Lights.” Over all five excellent seasons, Kitsch evolved from an alcoholic dark hole of anger to a man trying to find his way through his mess of life. Brilliant. However, in “Carter” Kitsch grunts and grumbles his lines like a barbarian bringing overall character potential to an odd place. Stoic is one way to describe him throughout most of the film – cardboard cutout is another. Couple this with lame leading lady Lynn Collins (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) as Princess Dejah Thoris and you get a acting that lands somewhere in the desert of blah with only small hints of fun, finesse and flirting. Both characters have great upsides. Both highly intelligent. Both extremely good looking. Both able to swing a sword like Sinbad (the character, not the 90s comic). And yet, for most of the film, we get none of that. As a rogue, Kitsch is perfect. As a Princess, Collins is aces. As heroic pawns in an epic battle for peace on Mars … eh.
In terms of the animation, the Willem Dafoe never looked better. As Tars Tarkas, leader of the multi-limbed horde that first finds Carter when he lands on Mars, Dafoe looks wonderful. Light-years past the debacle that was Jar-Jar Binks and a few steps above the excellent animation of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” the Martians of Barsoom are living, breathing creatures with an amazing cultural base. This is in extreme contrast to the human/martian characters that are just silly caricatures of fantasy stories. My only issue with the animation is that there is just too much of it. Like I said before, the earth scenes were textured, layered awesomeness but with all the CG flying around, Mars seemed completely fake and intangible.
Let’s be clear – I did not hate this film. It sounds like I did. But I didn’t. Part of the problem is that it’s just too easy to criticize and make fun of – and yet, most audiences will like this movie. There is some pretty quality action, the dog character is pretty cool, and like I said, the alien race looks pretty damn cool. At the same time, peppered throughout the film are some actually good scenes between the human characters that give the story depth. It sits somewhere between blah and booyah, and for me, it just had too much blah.
In my opinion, part of the problem is that we’ve already seen it all before. Yeah, yeah, I know the book was written a long time ago, but “Attack of the Clones” already came out and ruined the arena fight. “Avatar” already showed aliens flying with style. “Stargate” … yeah, more of the same. So while mass audiences may not have considered the character John Carter’s exploits as being ripped off, they were and too many years later, we get this and we find ourselves asking the question, “Why?”
I guess just to make money.
Overall, a classic space epic “John Carter” will not be. Flat humans and more realistic aliens contrast each other too sharply and the desert landscape of Mars just does not hold the gravity of Earth. Young and casual filmgoers will enjoy the ride. Heady nerds that know the source material will put up their noses and make silly comments that no one cares about while critical movie watchers will be honest and just say, “OK … when does ‘Prometheus’ come out?”
P.S. Don’t go see this in 3D. Seriously. No need. Other than an alien dog flying at your face that can only be compared to the big finale in “Jaws 3D” … no real entertainment value at all.
2.5 out 5 Bald Alien No-So-Good Pale Guys with Cool Powers and Stuff … Hey Wait, one of them is Mark Strong … I like him.