John Carter (2012) Walt Disney Pictures
2 hrs. 12 mins.
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe, Lynne Collins, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Science-Fiction Fantasy/Action & Adventure/Horror
Critic’s Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
John Carter certainly has its work cut out in ensuring its ambitious, sprawling sci-fi blockbuster status. An epic mirroring lavish scope as defined by its visual dust-ridden landscapes, colorful battle scenes, larger-than-life creatures, prehistoric and planetary pronouncements and of course an adventurous muscle-bound hero should definitely entice audiences looking for that bloated canvas of escapism. Also, it does not hurt that the story comes from the creative juices of Edgar Rice Burrough’s seminal works about Martian chronicles either. The question remains: can the sophisticated technical treatment of Hollywood’s wizardry do justice to the literary legacy of Burrough’s brilliant imagination?
Indeed John Carter is an eye-popping spectacle worthy of its “wow” factor. However, the thin plot and transparent characterizations leave much to be desired. It is nice to have the aura of a big-budgeted action-adventure flick that prides itself in excess imagery and glossy 3-D special effects. But the head-turning price tag for John Carter should be able to produce more than a pedestrian plotline and throwaway characters serving as convenient furniture to the broad carnage at hand. At times saggy and schmaltzy, John Carter resembles an old-fashioned and clumsy sword-and-sandal showcase complete with the inexplicable pacing of an arthritic dragon leaping over a boulder.
Director/co-writer Andrew Stanton, who has previously delighted moviegoers with such shrewd animated entries such Finding Nemo and WALL-E, seems to be riding the waves on his Pixar-proof reputation but surprisingly his Mars-based fable feels more cartoonish than any of his aforementioned animation triumphs. Rousing yet rudimentary, John Carter fails to ignite any spark that was generated in Burrough’s treasured pulp novels of yesteryear. Strangely, the film patches together familiar vibes that seem lifted from fare ranging from nostalgic Saturday morning Hercules movie serials to shades of Avatar or any other cheesy outer space narrative thrown in for good measure.
Nineteenth century former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is westward bound when he encounters a mysterious personality at a gold mine. Suddenly a weird occurrence appears and before long Carter finds himself transported to the planet Mars.
Interestingly, Carter has unexplainable powers on this planet beyond belief and it is not long before he assimilates to the way of speech and other social interaction with the planet’s freakish-looking, multi-colored denizens. It is quite clear that John Carter has adapted quite well to his new foreign surroundings. It does not take the resilient earthling-turned-Martian-mastermind long to get involved in the perils of Mars’ madness. Whether combating huge and hideous fanged monsters or participating in sky battles in order to protect the interests of an exquisite Queen Dejah Thoris of Helium (Lynn Collins), John Carter is the hard-bodied hero on the scene to right the wrongs in this harsh planetary playground.
As a pulsating popcorn pleaser, John Carter does have its moments when the action is in session courtesy of some slaughterhouse sequences that gives the movie its surrealistic push. Aerial and ground-level stunts are pretty frothy. Even the Coliseum-style “death-to-the-end” stakes are played in a Gladiator-inspired nod to spirited dueling. Predators such as the lizard-looking Tharks are a mixed bag of engrossing and comically conceived cretins.
As the stoic adventurer John Carter, Kitsch is passable in swagger but more often than not displays a stiffness that betrays the campy chaos that surrounds him. Collins’s Queen Dejah is aptly decorated and divinely curvaceous but brings hardly any spunk and definition to her role other than sporting exceptional body tone and piercing eyes. Only Willem Dafoe rises to the occasion as the impish and impetuous Tars Tarkas.
Ardent Burrough fans may feel compromised by the big screen treatment of John Carter because there will always be that fine line in wondering if skilled computer animator Stanton did right by the pulse of Edgar Rice’s creative rhythms in an excitable Disney live action film.
The payoff to John Carter remains to be seen from both diehard know-it-alls to casual/indifferent followers of this vintage fan favorite. Still, this fact is evident: there is bound to be some ounces of disappointment in this space-aged swashbuckling actioner no matter from which end of the sword you are standing.