John Carter is a stupid film, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad one. I imagine the intended product is exactly what we’re getting: a fantastic exercise in pulp storytelling set in a world where mid-air combat and intergalactic swashbuckling collide in astonishingly ludicrous ways. It’s entire narrative is flawed, and the mechanics of the universe has more than a few inconsistencies. (How a man can be incapacitated by a member of an alien species, and then proceed to kill another with one punch, is a quandary indeed).
Now you may be thinking, “Whoa, Gary, what of the plot synopsis that comes complimentary with every review? Who is this John Carter? What is the overwhelming challenges he must overcome?” Well, the narrative is the size of a white ape complimented with the thickness of a strand of the beast’s hair, but here it goes…
The film is based on the widely influential (but not-widely popular) series of pulp novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early 20th century (inspiring stories ranging from Superman to Indiana Jones to 2001: A Space Odyssey). There are two cities (Helium, on a mountain, and Zodanga, on a perpetually walking machine) on the planet Mars (referred to by the planet’s inhabitants as “Barsoom”), and they have been in a thousand-year war fueled by technology that ranges from advanced flying machines to swords and guns. The ruler of Zodanga (Dominic West) has recently been handed a super-weapon by the Therns, a mysterious race that seems to have just about the entire universe under its manipulative thumb. Helium’s forces are no match for this mysterious tech, shifting the fight such that it is now Zodanga’s victory to lose.
Cut to Earth. The year is 1868, and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who stumbles upon a cave full of gold, is attacked by a Thern and transported to Mars. He quickly discovers that his skeletal and muscular structure in Mars’ lower gravity atmosphere gives him the ability of leaping extraordinarily high heights and punching enemies to extraordinarily deathy death. These abilities are pretty impressive to Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), leader of the Tharks, a green-skinned, four-armed race of primitive tribal aliens that make short work of taking John prisoner.
These aliens are the first of the film’s impressively crafted computer-generated creations, which are fantastically imaged and realistically rendered in a grounded way that the narrative itself never accomplishes. Sure, John Carter becomes bloated with spectacle during its action-packed set pieces in its third
act, but this is a blessing when we consider the film’s script is relatively thin. That the aforementioned set-up doesn’t even begin to address the film’s plot — John needs to save Helium’s princess (Lynn Collins) from a forced marriage to Zodanga’s king — is a testament to it’s unnecessarily overcomplicated nature. I love the details in a pulp epic and don’t mind this film playing to its roots, but never to an extent that the groan-inducing dialogue makes most non-action sequences a chore to get through.
If the script’s aim to play pulp doesn’t necessarily do John Carter any favors, director and co-writer Andrew (WALL-E) Stanton made a good call entrusting his visuals to cinematographer Dan (Star Trek) Mindell and the expert special effects team, who ensure the scenes where characters aren’t speaking are popcorn fun of the highest regard. The film, as well as its human and CGI characters, are never a chore to look at, and the entire cast does a superior job handling the cheese-stuffed dialogue. It’s these details that ultimately will make the film enjoyable to most; much like its title character, John Carter is perpetually good when it’s in the midst of action and adventure.
I wanted to like John Carter more than I did, primarily because Stanton’s efforts at Pixar have in many ways improved the way we watch and consider animated films. To give him due credit, his track record indicates a remarkably sharp storyteller, and perhaps the director is so aware of his subject matter that his aim was to serve his first live-action spectacle with a generous helping of ham. But I’ll also note that as a guy who enjoys his fair share of pulpy movies (King Kong, The Shadow, The Rocketeer, and The Mummy, among many, many others), I think John Carter comes a bit short.
RATING: 2.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
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One thought on “Rack Focus: John Carter”
Good review Gary. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back. Not a must-see by any means but still a good one to check out for the fun of it. Check out my review when you get the chance.