John Carter (United States, 2012)

March 08, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
John Carter Poster

With its derivative story elements, epic scope, and straightforward action orientation, John Carter is a throwback to a simpler time when it was enough to have a heroic protagonist face off against all manner of monsters and bad guys. The special effects are first-rate, but that's no longer enough. The story, loosely adapted from the pulp stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs as filtered through the likes of Star Wars and Avatar (which, in and of themselves were inspired by the Burroughs series), suffers from a convoluted plot and an anticlimactic resolution, but hits enough high notes along the way to be enjoyable.

Back in my pre-teen years, I collected comic books. I can recall summer mornings spent lying in bed enraptured by the graphic adventures of Conan the Barbarian. John Carter is one of those rare movies that, during its watching, delivers the same sense of adventure. There's little doubt this is a flawed motion picture, but it aims big and, more often than not, delivers what it intends. Like its source material, which has reached the ripe old age of 100 this year (A Princess of Mars, in which Carter makes his first appearance, first came to the public's notice in 1912), John Carter is about handsome men, beautiful women, bizarre aliens, and impossible acts of heroism. It's about good triumphing over evil. And, if the ending seems a little haphazard because there are more stories to tell, at least it has an ending viewers can live with if a sequel never materializes. We are not held hostage to a dubious box office potential.

John Carter is an origin story. It relates how the title character (Taylor Kitsch), a post-Civil War confederate captain from Virginia, is transported to Mars (called "Barsoom" by those who live there). Differences in gravity give Carter enhanced strength and agility on the Red Planet, which is in the midst of its own civil war. Carter's initial encounter with the natives is with a party of four-armed, green-skinned, horned Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Circumstances lead to his rescue of Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is to be married by her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), to warlord Sab Than (Dominic West) to secure peace between the "blue" humanoids and the "red" ones. Dejah Thoris wants Carter to join her people in their struggle against the forces of Sab Than; in return, she offers him the secret of how to return to Earth. Things are not as simple as they seem, however. Than is being controlled by a race of immortal creatures whose entertainment comes from manipulating the rise and fall of empires and planets. To save Mars, Carter must form alliances and defeat the plans of Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

John Carter is fast-paced - almost too fast-paced. There's a surfeit of story for its 132-minute running time and, in order to cram in everything, the backstory is related with an unseemly rapidity and the politics of Mars become a muddle. It doesn't take long to figure out who the good guys are, but it's not always clear why they are the good guys. Calling John Carter "science fiction" is a misnomer; it's really "fantasy" or "space opera." Just because it happens on another planet doesn't mean it's "science fiction." Middle Earth is no less alien than Barsoom. It helps with the suspension of disbelief if you don't try to figure out why there are so many sword fights in a movie with giant airships. Hey, Star Wars had lightsabers!

This is director Andrew Stanton's first live action feature; he comes to John Carter with a Pixar-saturated resume that includes Finding Nemo and WALL*E. The movie relies heavily on computer generated elements and resembles the Star Wars prequels in the degree to which special effects are incorporated. It looks impressive in a CGI way with lots of stuff going on in both the foreground and the background. One could make a convincing case that it's not much of a leap from WALL*E to John Carter. Here, a few humans have been added to what amounts to a predominantly animated world. Even the Tharks are the product of motion capture.

The acting is adequate for this type of epic, with the actors not necessarily having been chosen for their traditional thespian qualities. The most obvious example is Taylor Kitsch, who cuts a nice figure without his shirt and delivers his dialogue without stumbling over his lines (although his John Wayne accent early in the proceedings is distracting). He lacks the musculature of Frank Frazetta's recognizable interpretation of Carter, but he looks the part of an action hero. Lynn Collins brings strength and beauty to the role of Dejah Thoris, and she and Kitsch make a good couple. Supporting roles are filled by more established character actors. Mark Strong and Dominic West don the black hats. Ciaran Hinds in Dejah Thoris' father, the leader of the city Helium. And Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, and Samantha Morton provide the voices (and presumably the motion capture work) for the three main Tharks.

The biggest flaw associated with John Carter has nothing to do with the production and everything to do with the presentation. The post-production 3-D conversion is abysmal. It's among the five most inexcusably bad examples of this process and has the potential to destroy the viewing experience for anyone unfortunate to watch it this way. Blurry images, dimly lit scenes, and view-master quality planar placement abound. Often with 3-D films, the 3-D is merely unnecessary. In this case, it's an impediment to immersion. It's not Clash of the Titans bad, but it's in the ballpark.

Disney's decision to move up the release date from a crowded summer marketplace to the more sedate month of March may help the movie's box office performance, although it would be surprising to see John Carter generate the revenue necessary to compel a sequel. After all the mis-steps and mis-starts along the way, it's almost a miracle this movie made it to the screen. Rice Burrough's most famous creation, Tarzan, has inspired dozens of movies; this is John Carter's first trip to the big screen. The result is an entertaining diversion but it lacks the magnificence one desires in the opening chapter of a would-be franchise.

John Carter (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2012-03-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1