John Carter Directed by: Andrew Stanton Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong Running Time: 2 hrs 12 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: March 9, 2012
PLOT: Civil War veteran John Carter (Kitsch) is suddenly transported to Mars, where he finds himself in the middle of another battle. He encounters a princess who tries to convince John he could change the tide of the war.
WHO'S IT FOR?: Fans of science fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs ought to get in line immediately, and buy tickets for the second showing. Not because they'll necessarily fall in love with this high budget carnation, but because they're probably the biggest hope Disney has of helping this $250 million wannabe blockbuster make its mark. If you like science fiction movies, or action movies, this still isn't an immediate recommendation for you. This movie would definitely give Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds a brain aneurysm.
EXPECTATIONS: I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was very aware of this film's backstory. Would Wall-E director Andrew Stanton be able to pull off huge budget live-action? Could this be the start of a new franchise, or even the next Avatar? And at the same time, just how well could a movie like this be received by a mass audience? How many people out there have even read a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter: Watching Kitsch brings back memories of Chris Hemsworth's version of Thor. Both are made out to be macho meat, but have their egos made example of whenever the film calls for comic relief. As the leading quarterback of the John Carter experience, Kitsch seems to display a Thor-like self-awareness of his faults, but he doesn't bring a whole lot of charisma to the table. We appreciate his character noticeably more than the man actually bringing him to life. Score: 5
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris: Another character from John Carter who feels too typical than she should be. There are a couple of moments in which does display some legitimate butt-kicking, but being memorable stops there. She's able to sell some action figures, at the most. Score: 4
Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas: For a "Barsoom" creature with four arms and tusks on his face, Tars Tarkas still feels like a bland character. His own emotional journey that parallels John Carter's is invested in by the script, but receives almost non-existent emotional compensation. This is not a character we embrace on any general level. Cue "It's not easy being green reference." Score: 3
Mark Strong as Matai Shang: As evil ghost-wizard Thurn Matai Shang, Strong floats around and coldly manipulates people with almost antichrist control. When looking for intimidating middle-aged men with no hair on this heads, go to Mark Strong. He's got the piercing eyes and the low voice (with an accent to boot) that are used to expected effect in the Mark Strong-iest character he has played for some time. Score: 4
TALKING: John Carter makes no nerdy bones about using its own terminology throughout the entire film. Mars is now called "Barsoom," there are creatures called Tharks, (one of which goes by the name Tars Tarkas,) then there's also Thurns, who are not immediately related to Tharks, and then Earth is called ... something else. While the title of the movie boasts an average yet memorable name for its center character, the names and terms used in the rest of the movie do not present the audience with the same accessibility. This makes it hard to keep up with the film - something that's even harder when the film's pacing starts to slag. Score: 7
SIGHTS: There's absolutely no slacking here on the visuals, whether it be creatures, locations, or ships. Battles are choreographed with great detail, and the many detailed sets of John Carter never have us thinking "artificial." The special effects are simply great, and the 3D is even surprisingly decent (I can only imagine what it looks like in IMAX). Score: 9
SOUNDS: Composer Michael Giacchino offers his best action score since Star Trek, evoking the same beats (not literally) as a well-placed piece from the original Star Wars movies. John Carter receives a large amount of its support on the epic scale from Giacchino's lush rising melodies and perfect motifs. Score: 8
BEST SCENE: The scene in which Carter fights a large group of Tharks while remembering his belated wife shows that Stanton can absolutely still craft an emotional scene in live-action. It is a well edited moment that effectively uses music, and even Kitsch.
ENDING: The opening scenes on Earth make a lot more sense, and there's even a nice surprise at the end. The story cuts off at the right time leave us desiring for a sequel ... from the same director, of course.
QUESTIONS: Who else was in the running to direct this movie? How many re-writes did it go through, and were people within Disney ever skeptical about its appeal? Does the presence of a movie as massive as this raise the question of the popularity?
REWATCHABILITY: As pretty as some of the visuals may be, and as much as I want to support the work of Andrew Stanton, I don't think I could rewatch this until the Blu-ray. If I did see it in theaters again, it would have to be a matinee, and not in 3D. And even then, I'll need to fully concentrate it on it to prevent myself from getting overly bored with some parts.
As a live-action debut for a director previously known for animation, John Carter shows that Stanton does have a true director's eye for crafting some scenes with equal emotional and excitement, and all with a sense of wonder. Just as he did with Wall-E, Stanton beautifully captures the liberating essence of flying. And throughout the film, whether the story's contents can provide the same vibrancy, John Carter remains a movie driven by a visionary who actually deserves such an expensive canvas to create.
What primarily damns John Carter is its commitment to its dryness. With its consistently used strange terms and odd-looking characters, this piece of popcorn entertainment isn't just for any person with a remote taste for science fiction. For fans of the material, and even new fans, it will indeed provide some joy. Yet for others looking to easily immerse themselves into a new potential science fiction franchise, it's bound to alienate more than this movie's investors probably can afford. Considering budget in criticism is mostly hoo-nanny, but in the case of John Carter, in which it looks like $250 million dollars, it's hard to not consider how much of that will actually be reimbursed by new devoted viewers.
Laying witness to the newest big budget genre epic, I was reminded of two others: Star Wars, and Prince of Persia.
Though it does not equal the sky-high quality of the very first Star Wars movie, there are bits of John Carter that recall George Lucas' masterpiece, and in an efficient way. Watching some of these effects-heavy sequences and meeting some unique characters, I couldn't help but recall the excitement of first experiencing the world of Star Wars. Like Star Wars, this movie is fully committed to its vision and its created universe, for better or worse.
However, as the story moved on, those thoughts turned to memories of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, that failed Jake Gyllennhaal blockbuster movie that barely left a dent in the fantasy world because it turned out so generic. Though the size and effects were there, the script lacked anything really special. It wasn't eye-opening, no matter how many eye-popping effects might have been used.
John Carter is awkwardly stuck between the spirit of those two films: it has the potential to really challenge the genre (and it does offer some incredible sequences), but its anxieties to feature dead horse crowd-pleasing elements lower it to a disappointing level of mediocrity.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10