John Carter film review

When I went to watch John Carter in 2D, the cinema screening was preceded by 2 trailers which, back-to-back, depicted aliens blasting apart skyscrapers while shocked human heroes screech and snipe at each other. That’s pretty much what classifies as a mainstream science fiction actioner today. Mass urban destruction; complicated, CGI-heavy action set pieces; overwhelming noise and gung ho heroes – it’s a slick, soulless combination stamped out by the Hollywood Machine like clockwork this time of year. As appetising as month-old rice cakes, it’s films like these that movie-going children today have to base their fondest film-related fantasies and memories on.

Now John Carter is faaaar from perfect, but this first ever film adaptation of Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom series of stories (dating all the way back to the 1910s) is inherently different to the conveyer belt creations of today. John Carter feels like classic pulp – constantly teetering on the edge of camp silliness, but managing to never fall into Flash Gordon territory. And this is despite the film not shying away from obvious credibility fractures like having characters stand around in ridiculous, skin-baring costumes and discuss heady political issues in crisp English accents.

John Carter’s secret for success is that the film has heart. The movie is messy and uneven, but doesn’t wink or sneer at its absurdities. Director Andrew Stanton – a prominent Pixar animator – and his team are clearly committed to making this galaxy-leaping adventure as fun as possible for the whole family, providing viewers with a real sense of wonder as we visit another world. Much like James Cameron’s Avatar did. If I were a parent I’d expose my children to the warmth-blooded John Carter in a heartbeat over the Star Wars prequels as cold as Hoth and as stiff as Obi-Wan’s beard.

In terms of John Carter’s plot, in the late 1800s young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is summoned to the estate of his deceased uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Civil War cavalry officer turned treasure hunter. At the mansion Burroughs loses himself in Carter’s diary, which tells a bizarre story of how 10 years previously the bitter soldier was transported from Arizona to Mars – an arid, dying world which the locals refer to as Barsoom. On Mars, Carter is captured by the brutal, multi-limbed Tharks but his attempts to return to Earth draw him into a centuries’ old civil war between the humanoid cities of Helium (led by emperor Ciarán Hinds), under blue banners, and Zodanga (led by warlord Dominic West), in red. Secretly fuelling the conflict meanwhile are the Therns, supposed Holy Men whose control of the powerful “Ninth Ray” is certainly not for altruistic purposes.

Some reviewers have complained that the plot for John Carter is confusing and nonsensical, but I had no such gripes. There’s certainly the sense that a lot of footage (particularly relating to character introductions and development) has ended up on the cutting room floor, but in terms of actual storyline, much of the novel’s “dated” scientific rationale seems to have been surprisingly retained in its non-streamlined form – and there’s even one pleasant plot twist.

For the record, the film does leap from Indiana Jones to Avatar to Dune to Flash Gordon to Star Wars, but it’s all part of John Carter’s charm – and, well, Burroughs’ stories were the inspiration for all those pop culture properties in the first place.

There’s plenty to like about John Carter. It’s a nice change that this space traveller doesn’t sneer down at the Martians. Their winged flying machines are as much a marvel to him as the concept of Earth’s oceans is to them. The fact that the big budget John Carter is from Disney also could have been a stumbling block, but the Mouse House pedigree is actually to the film’s benefit. The studio really knows how to handle “magical” scenes, investing them with a sense of sincere awe. John Carter has its goofy moments, typically linked to Carter’s enhanced jumping abilities (due to Barsoom’s lesser gravity) but they feel more gleefully child-like than dumb or annoying.

Not that everything in John Carter is necessarily 100% safe for little ones in the audience. The film’s 2 strongest fight sequences – one in a gladiator pit and the other against savage hordes in the desert – are graphic and dramatically intense… much more than you would expect from a Disney film. The Thark are also not those tree hugging/plugging hippies, the Na’vi. These oversized alien beings equate compassion with weakness, and this is especially apparent when they start kicking and beating the film’s most loveable character – Woola, a pug-ugly, multi-limbed Martian “dog”, who endears himself to Carter and the audience instantly.

Speaking of characters and performances, Kitsch makes a solid lead, although he is far better, and more interesting, in the film’s first half, when Carter is still in surly, disinterested anti-hero mode (think Harrison Ford). Lynn Collinsmy new first choice for Wonder Woman – plays Carter’s love interest, Helium princess Dejah Thoris, and the actress is highly convincing as a princess of another world: intelligent, soulful, and strikingly beautiful as opposed to conventionally pretty. Mark Strong meanwhile makes an ominous, elegant villain (as always), and the film’s CGI-wizardry – particularly strong in the department of character creation – helps to make Willem Dafoe’s Thark leader, Tars Tarkas another standout, likeable figure.

If I have any major complaint to make about John Carter, it’s to do with the film’s action scenes. Even the 2 best, already mentioned above, feel too abrupt. If they had been afforded some extra screen time and intensity variation, they might have been more exciting and memorable. They definitely would have benefited from an extra shot of adrenalin, and the chance to flaunt some impressive choreography.

Still though, despite its failings, John Carter does get one thing right that so many other movies today don’t – and that’s simply its spirit. John Carter feels like a fantasy/sci-fi adventure from another era. As a child of the 80s, John Carter is certainly an enjoyable throwback experience to the fantasy I grew up on.

3 and a half stars out of 5.


@ickabelgont said…
Couldn't agree with you more, especially concerning the prevalence of mass produced mainstream Sci Fi. If/when the proposed Emmerich Foundation film appears, I think we may well look back at this and be ashamed of some of the things we have said about it's treatment of a classic sci-fi novel. Obviously I hope that is the classic I desperately want it to be, but somehow I doubt it. John Carter, however, left me with a massive grin on my face, despite it's flaws. From pulp fiction, that's all you really want.
Dan O. said…
Good review. 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.

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