Giovanni's Movie Review: JOHN CARTER

A brash young man discovers a secret passageway that transports him to another world far different than Earth. The key to escaping is a mysterious round object that emits blue light. But while he’s there, he discovers this world is in turmoil and needs help. Plus, there’s a girl capable of butt kicking who wants him to stick around, so the quintessential hero decides to rise to the occasion

You’d be correct in guessing that the above synopsis describes Disney’s last live-action adventure film, Tron: Legacy. But you’d be equally correct if guessing John Carter, the House of Mouse’s newest sci-fi flick. Substitute Sam Flynn for John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch), the techno-grid with the rocky surface of Mars (or Barsoom, as it’s known to natives), and the identity disc for a medallion and you’ve got an entirely "new" film. In video games, there’s a term players use when developers take a pre-existing level and simply swap the aesthetics: reskinning. Disney applies that same idea here, recycling a formula with new effects.

But let’s be honest; that’s what all movies do. The truth is, John Carter follows one of the oldest narrative structures there is; the hero’s journey. This isn’t an inherent fault, as most novelized adventure stories use this as well. So the question becomes, does the film work around this set parameter well? As far as John Carter goes, the answer is yes and no in equal parts. Directed and co-written by Pixar-pro Andrew Stanton, the film begins with writing and gags that would fit snuggly into his popular animated film Wall-E. After obligatory set-up, the film settles into a great, fun groove. Kitsch plays the insolent Civil War-era Carter charismatically. There are traces of 80’s Harrison Ford in his performance; his very presence makes scenes more enjoyable.

The first half is heavy on enjoyment, with plenty of humor interspersed with the plot. As soon as Carter gets to Mars, he’s captured by an alien race. The struggle for Carter to understand this foreign world is hilarious while commenting succinctly on language and culture barriers. It’s a delicate balance of entertainment and thematic communication, but one Stanton is great at maintaining. The alien and creature work also adds a great deal to the fun factor. The designs are all fresh and imaginative, feeling like a mix of Ray Harryhausen’s campy claymation creatures, and the quirky specimens of Nintendo games like Pikmin. From bulbous, roly-poly Martian babies to a brilliant, Miyazaki-esque alien dog, the CG creations that inhabit Stanton’s world are marvelously inventive.

But once things get serious, the movie takes a sharp nosedive, handling drama far less gracefully than comedy. Kitsch mostly loses his charming nature when paired with Dejah (Lynn Collins), the entirely uninteresting love interest/damsel-in-distress. While her character is first presented as a tough heroine, she’s soon reduced to a pawn in a dull “save the princess” story. Collins isn’t given much to do outside of begging for help and looking distressed as her character is pulled through an archaic arc.

But the biggest problem plaguing the film is an overabundance of high-octane action sequences. That may seem like an odd criticism for a popcorn flick, but the fights are so non-stop that they quickly become boring. There’s a reason why many movies pace their battles, leaving the biggest one for the very end. A movie like Transformers has many faults, but it's painfully awkward dialogue and forced drama somehow helps to build up to its big climax. Movies like that make the audience earn their thrills. Story and character development create heroes worth caring for and enemies worth rooting against, making the final battle exciting and the stakes relatively real. Here, it’s difficult to even identity why the bad guy is so bad, or why they’re fighting in the first place. There’s still fun to be had, but very little of it is as satisfying as it should be.

There are great moments throughout John Carter, but by the second half they’re very few and very far between. It’s not that there’s anything particularly bad about the film, it’s just that it feels incredibly overworked. The scale is massive, trying to present as large a vision as possible. The result is a mess of action sequences, drama, and b-plots held together by a lazy frame story. There’s enough light fun to warrant a short trip to space, but it’s not a place worth getting lost in.

3 Stars

John Carter is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

John Carter is directed by Academy Award winner Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church and Willem Defoe. The film is scheduled for theatrical release on March 9th, 2012.