[Review] – John Carter

26 Mar

Title: John Carter
Year: 2012
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston
MPAA Rating: PG-13, intense sequences of violence and action
Runtime: 132 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 51%
Metacritic: 51

A lot has been said about John Carter, and rightfully so. It was the live-action debut of writer-director Andrew Stanton, the man who had made his name with Pixar films like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. It was the film appearance of the main character in Edgar Rice Burroughs eleven-volume series of epic science-fiction novels, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the character. And it was a spectacularly risky project; straddled with a seriously huge budget, no big name stars, a character non-genre fans aren’t really familiar with, and a marketing push that, while expansive, didn’t really seem to connect with people and failed to sell the story the proper way.

Well, a lot can be said now that John Carter has been released for a bit over two weeks. Reviews were pretty mixed. and commercially the film was quickly referred to as a big flop, failing to even top its opening weekend were it lost to holdover The Lorax, and considering the budget for the film was so damn high, at about $250 million, not even it’s great performance overseas helped it become a commercial success, and Disney has already stated that it expects the film to lose them as much as $200 million in their second fiscal quarter. And yet I kind of found myself liking John Carter.

That’s right, I liked John Carter. I didn’t love it and it’s definitely not a film I’ll remember a whole lot by the end of the year, but I think it’s a far better film than what its reputation is making it seem out to be. And I do think this is now positive proof that Pixar directors can make a successful jump to live-action films; Brad Bird, who made The Incredibles and Ratatouille for the animation studio, was the first to do so with last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which I loved, gave an A to and ended up as my 21st favorite film of all 2011. And now Andrew Stanton I think actually did a really good job, nowhere near as terrific as Mr. Bird’s, surely, but to take such a massive project as his first live-action go-round and to deliver a film like this I thought was a real solid job, and though the sequels to this one he had planned certainly won’t happen after this one’s performance, I’m curious to see what he does next if he chooses to do another live-action film.

Now, not to say I’m a super supporter of John Carter or anything, I just think it’s getting a really bad rep while it’s not actually all that bad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the various faults it has. It’s a messy kind of film, and the convoluted sense of plotting as well as the iffy characterization does make it feel like a bit too much at times, but then you’ll quickly get lost in just how insanely rad it looks and feels, and that’s when you’ll start having a whole lot of fun. Not to mention that, however you feel towards the film, it’s hard not appreciate the level of imagination brought forth by the source material; by the time our lead character starts hearing about the politics and history of Mars you’ll start getting into it quite a lot. I bet the books are far better because that’s usually the case, and their fans I would assume were let down by the film, but if you’re like me and you haven’t read them, you’ll really get a kick out of this.

The story certainly will feel familiar to anyone who’s seen other-planet, sci-fi adventures; Avatar will certainly come to mind as a film this one takes a lot from, though in reality it’s Avatar that took a lot from this one’s source material. Our titular hero is an ex-Confederate soldier who finds himself being transported from Arizona to Mars, where a bunch of races try to gain control of the planet. And of course that’s a tough gig to really nail, to really create an entire world and a lot of creatures with a kind of pulp sensibility. Mr. Stanton and his visual effects team have not only created some really awesome creatures super convincingly, but they have created a world that feels very real and extremely immersive, and they really do deserve a bunch of kudos for that alone.

From the opening scene Mr. Stanton throws us right into the world, and to the uninitiated it may be tough to catch up right away, but then we backtrack a little bit and get to little by little know and explore this world alongside John Carter, see how he was imprisoned by the Tharks, who are the green guys here, then meet the red Martians, and their beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins. And of course John will fall for Dejah, the beautiful warrior princess being forced into marriage to save her people; she’s the Neytiri to his Jake Sully, if you will.

The one thing that really prevented me from loving John Carter, though, is a thing that Andrew Stanton always brings in the best of ways in his animated films: and that’s just sheer emotion. The visuals are there, and they’re breathtaking; the action sequences are done with some truly impeccable CGI; but considering this is the guy that gave us Wall-E and Finding Nemo, I found myself surprised that emotionally I just didn’t connect with this film, not even with a score by frequent Pixar collaborator Michael Giacchino. But I guess the blame for that doesn’t fall squarely on Mr. Stanton’s shoulders, this is after all his first film with human actors, and they had to carry the emotional weight. And Lynn Collins just doesn’t, and even though Friday Night Lights is my favorite TV show of all-time, and I love Tim Riggins, I’m afraid that Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter, doesn’t either.

The fact that Mr. Kitsch didn’t really nail this performance is a bit of a pity. I mean, he’s good because he certainly looks the part of the rugged pulp hero, and he has the charisma that made Tim Riggins such a brilliant character, but I just didn’t believe him capable of carrying this big film, partially to blame for that have to be Mr. Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, the writers of the film, that just didn’t give this character any kind of depth to be honest. Which is surprising considering Mr. Chabon is just sheer awesome and wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, my favorite book of all-time. But yeah, I just didn’t love Mr. Kitsch here the way I wanted to, though I do still want him to become a big Hollywood leading man; you gotta root for Riggins.

John Carter has been getting a really crappy rep, and it actually doesn’t deserve it. It’s far better than what the box office numbers make it out to be, when it’s embracing the big action set pieces and pulpy stuff it behaves like an Indiana Jones sort of film in the sense that you’re just watching some awesome effects in an awesome environment, with your mouth open. And that’s really something to praise; for every word that’s been said about the ridiculous amount of money this film cost to make, the film has a sequence in which it shows how it spent it, and it looks too damn great for us to hold a grudge to it. Give it a shot, that’s my advice.

Grade: B+

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