- Movie Rating -

John Carter (2012)

| August 16, 2012 | 0 Comments

John Carter is lumbering epic monstrosity, a boring film that looks great but goes nowhere. Here is a science fiction western with a visual look so engaging that you are firmly caught up until about the 30 minute mark, after which this pathetically dated story becomes repetitive and wears out its welcome. The bad news is that is continues on for another two hours.

The story was written hundred years ago, and very loosely based on “The Princess of Mars” which Edgar Rice Burrows wrote as a six-part serial for “The All-Story Magazine” in 1912 just before he became famous for Tarzan. That story inspired a series called “John Carter on Mars.”  Today, based on otherwise brilliant studio thinking, Disney had the words “of Mars” removed from the film because of the failure of their recent Mars Needs Moms, plus the thinking that most films with the word “Mars” in the title were unsuccessful, as if somehow that one single word will damn the production.  Having seen both John Carter and Mars Needs Mom, you can rest assured that neither of these films fails on the title alone.

The story begins in 1868 as a stuffy young fellow named Edgar Rice Burrows (Daryl Sabara) learns that his uncle John Carter has passed away. Visiting his uncle’s estate, he finds the details of his late relative’s demise are a mystery and so are the reasons why he is entombed in a crypt that was made to be locked from the inside. Reading through Carter’s diary, Burrows uncovers a fantastical story of Carter’s adventures on the planet Mars.

Flash back a few years and we see the young John Carter (Tyler Kitsch), a veteran of the Civil War, being recruited to fight off the Apaches by a determined Union Army Colonel named Powell (Bryan Cranston). Carter wants no part of this, but the Colonel insists, despite the fact that Carter keeps slugging his officers on the jaw.  Out on the plains of the Arizona Territory, a gunfight with the Apaches leads Carter to a bizarre looking cave scrawled with writing that is definitely not Indian. Just then, strange cloaked figure emerges from nowhere and Carter – through a magic amulet – soon finds himself in a different desert, only this one allows him to defy gravity, bounding 500 yards at a single bound.

It isn’t until about an hour into the film before Carter comes to realize that he’s on the red planet, which the inhabitants call Barsoom.  In the meantime, Carter has gotten mixed up with a race called Tharks, which are tall green-skinned aliens who speak their own language for a while but then strangely revert to speaking English to spare us dimwitted American philistines from having to read subtitles – God forbid!  Their enemies are The Therns which are humanoids with British accents. Unlike The Tharks, The Therns skip over the need for subtitles by speaking The Queen’s English outright and saving us the trouble.

It goes without saying that the Therns have in their population one female, a gorgeous, raven-haired beauty named Dejah (Lynn Collins) who smolders with love for John Carter. The Martian cities of Zodanga and Helium have been at war for eons.  Sab Than (Dominic West), king of Zodanga, armed with a weapon obtained from the Therns, proposes an end to the war only if he can marry Dejah. The Princess escapes and is saved by Carter. This won’t be the only time.

What has been described here is just the tip of the iceberg. This is basically a simple plot that could probably have been tied up in about 90 minutes, but it goes on and on and on far longer than it should. Admittedly the movie looks great, there are landscapes here that make you feel as if you’re on an alien world, and the look of the Tharks is something original. They look like a race of flesh and blood beings, not just a bunch of video game pawns. Yet, even as impressive as they look, no real thought has gone into making the Tharks into individuals. They all look the same, which is a problem when you see a screen filled with thousands and thousands of them at the same time.  Other than the look of the film, which is astonishing given the technology, the story is creaky and dull.  It doesn’t answer the fundamental questions about why this world contains massive airships and laser cannons, yet employs warriors that still choose to fight with swords.  Nor is the question answered of why John Carter can leap through the air at 500 yards at a clip, while the question of how he is able to breathe air.

The problem here is that the story, which is a hundred years old, feels a hundred years old.  Long before Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Metropolis, The Day The Earth Stood Still, or even before Science Fiction was a genre, this tale was being written and nothing in this film has been updated.  We get a lone hero who becomes a stranger in a strange land, caught up in a war between uninteresting factions and having to rescue a beautiful princess.   The problem is that this movie has no energy.  It has bold action scenes but it has no comic tone, no motivation and no interest.  It has no tone to speak of and after a short time it becomes repetitive.

Casting should be key.  The two leads are played by beautiful people.  Lynn Collins plays the princess as a fierce warrior but with no dimension.  Tyler Kitsch of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” occupies the title role with nothing to do but smolder and get caught up in routine action.  He’s a good-looking actor, quite adequate for teenage girls, but there’s nothing in this performance that shows that he’s anything but a matinee idol.  It may not be his fault; he doesn’t have anything to work with.

John Carter is a melancholy effort that reminds us of the cinema of our time.  Once, long ago, movies like this were made for the bottom half of a double-bill.  They were B-pictures played for an afternoon matinee while the A-pictures played later in the evening.  Now the B-pictures are sold as event films, packaged and propped up as if they were important cinema, not just for a mass audience but in the hopes that it will spawn an ongoing and very profitable series in the vein of Star Wars and Harry Potter.  John Carter isn’t important enough or original enough to earn that kind of following.  Here is a movie about a man who can leap very high into the air, but he’s stuck in a movie that crashes back to earth with a painful thud.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.