Thursday, March 15, 2012

John Carter - Theatrical Review


Release Date: March 9, 2012

I am a sucker for sprawling Sci-Fi epics. I love to discover a new world, new technologies and the societies that populate those worlds. Science fiction stories are the epitome of escapist fun and this latest (or is it the first?) franchise featuring bizarre creatures and fantastical sights is just what the doctor ordered.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards Irvine 21 IMAX
Time: 4:15 pm March 9, 2012
Projector Type: IMAX 3D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 13 min
Studio: Disney

Loves: Science fiction epics, Princesses that kick ass
Likes: Taylor Kistch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe
Neutral: Too much talk and not enough show at times
Hates: The lack of a good villain
Based: On a series of novels from the early 1900s.

Establishing any new fiction, pre-existing or not, is a difficult undertaking. The filmmakers have the unfortunate duty of translating all the complexities of the written word to the screen in a fashion that not only makes it comprehensible but also entertaining. That is exactly what director Andrew Stanton attempts with the translation of Edgar Rice Burroughs 11-volume deep Barsoom series of novels but there is another problem he had to contend with. I have heard many people claim that most modern day Science Fiction films have been directly influenced by the adventures of John Carter and from what I could tell there is a lot of truth to that statement. For me though it comes down to two simple questions, is it possible to still enjoy something that technically came out before the more popular franchises it influenced or will it come off as too derivative of those things I had grown up with and now consider to be the forbearers of all my childhood pop culture?

After a chance encounter with a mysterious individual, the Confederate Civil War Calvary veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported to the red planet where he encounters a number of different races that populate the once thought dead planet including the leader of the Tharks clan Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the Red Princess of Mars Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and the ruthless warlord Sab Than (Dominic West) who pursues the princess in hopes that their union would unite all the disparate factions of Barsoom under his iron fist. John Carter's arrival however disrupts Sab Than's plans, as well as the shadowy Therns led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), as he is gifted with great strength and abilities beyond anyone has ever seen. Could John Carter be the savior the people of Barsoom have been waiting for?

John Carter is the only person who can save Mars.

I know what you are most likely thinking at this point. Who the hell is Sab Than? Who and what the hell is a Thark or a Thern? What is a Barsoom? What does any of this have to do with a soldier from the Civil War? Most importantly you are probably asking yourself why any of this should matter to you? I sympathize with you...hell, I even agree with you for the most part. Do we really need yet another series that has to introduce us to and familiarize us with a whole new set of bizarre creatures, strange worlds and a struggle against a tyrannical evil that will stop at nothing to make sure everyone is very unhappy? For me the answer is quite simple, yes. I love being shown new things, things that help stir the imagination. If it feels derivative of other fiction then I am alright with that just so long as it is done well and offers some decent thrills and some good characters for me to invest in.

The case of John Carter is different than most other recent Sci-Fi epics though. This isn't something concocted from the mind of a person raised on popular Science Fiction or any other recent fantasy based fare. This is supposedly the one that influenced all those films or franchises we grew up on in the first place. The Barsoom series of novels started back in 1912 so that argument is pretty valid when you think about it. After seeing the film itself I too was overcome with a heavy sense of deja vu from the imagery to the basic plot itself which is your average stranger in a strange land scenario. Images of just about every Sci-Fi fantasy I grew up on popped in my head with an almost alarming regularity while watching John Carter. This isn't something new for me mind you, I often recall scenes or events that appear similar to other films but this one was different. I could clearly see the influence these novels must have had on the filmmakers of my youth. There was almost something comforting in the familiarity I was experiencing though, something that eased me into the right mindset to enjoy the film for what it was.

The world of John Carter can be awe inspiring at times.

It is important to have that kind of mindset if you are at all a fan of this genre because I guarantee you that a lot of what happens in John Carter will feel very familiar to most people, to the point of being almost turned off by it. It is important because you really shouldn't hold it against the film or the material it is based off of just because it took so darn long to get translated to the big screen. Instead of focusing on how much it feels like those other films and franchises you should be more concerned with whether or not it succeeds at what it is trying to accomplish. Now I am sure the novels have their fans and although I cannot really comment on how well it survived the translation from book to screen, I can say that John Carter the film delivers the goods where it counts and is probably one of the better attempts at creating a new cinematic Sci-Fi franchise since the original Star Wars trilogy.

Pay attention to what I said there...I did not say it was successful, only better than the average Sci-Fi start up. That clarification is key because while John Carter gets a lot right that many other recent films of the same genre have failed at (The Star Wars prequels, the Riddick series), it is far from perfect. There are some real pacing issues that come into play where you can tell the filmmakers tried their hardest to set this world up for the audience with countless scenes of characters spouting out exposition like there were no tomorrow. Even with so much time invested in getting us acquainted with the world of John Carter I STILL found the need to hit up the internet when writing this review to make sure I got all the little details right. When a film spends as much time as John Carter does on explaining the logistics of the world and its rules and it still never really sinks in, that is a major problem. But it was a problem I didn't have too hard a time overlooking for a number of reasons.

The Princess of Mars is both beautiful and dangerous.

It was easy to look beyond that because I still understood the basics, who the bad guys were, who the good guys were and what their motivations were. I knew why Princess Dejah didn't want to marry Sab Than. I understood why John Carter was so reluctant to want to help the reds in their battle for freedom. I also understood why the Therns were manipulating the events unfolding before us. To put it bluntly, I understood the broad strokes of what was occurring simply because, like I mentioned earlier, I have seen this story told numerous times before. It was the smaller or dare I say the less important details that escaped me. What was the history between the people of Barsoom? What led them to this point? Why did the Tharks hate the humans so much? Why was there a device that transported people between worlds? Is that really John Carter on Mars and if so what is happening to his real body back on Earth? What was up with that cave of gold Carter keeps going on about? Does any of that really matter? Not really, but having those questions linger was a slight oversight that will hopefully be remedied by a sequel (if we get one that is).

I hope I am not sounding overly negative on the film because I actually liked it quite a lot. I found the world of John Carter to be a very interesting and well realized place, all the different races we meet and the different places we visit all felt very organic. I believed that these civilizations existed and that the people who inhabited Mars were not just some two dimensional card board cut outs but fully three dimensional characters. I was initially very weary of Taylor Kitsch getting the leading role, I liked him on the television series Friday Night Lights but also felt like he was a one note actor without very much range. While I can't say he will be winning very many awards for his performance here, he did provide a very likable character who was very easy to care about by the time the end credits rolled. I am now slightly more optimistic about what he may bring to this summers board game/alien invasion blockbuster Battleship even if the film itself still seems completely ridiculous.

John Carter and Princess Dejah look on as they fight for the people of Mars.

Another surprise for me was Lynn Collins as the Princess of Mars, Dejah. I had seen her in other films but honestly never really noticed her. Looking over her filmography I was shocked at how many films she had been in that I had actually seen before but didn't recall seeing her in them. I was shocked because of how much of an impression she made on me here. This may seem fairly trivial to most people out there but I am not a huge fan of the damsel in distress, I like my women to kick ass while also retaining a good amount of femininity (i.e. no butch barbarian women please). Anyone that knows me can attest to the fact that I am all about female empowerment and Princess Dejah is the epitome of that ideal. She is bold, beautiful, dangerous, intelligent and doesn't take shit from anyone. She is probably the best bad ass Princess I had seen since Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and much of that has to do with Lynn Collins and what she brings to the role.

Dominic West as the villain Sab Than was the only real weak link for me. I really like the guy, he was amazing on the television show The Wire but for some reason whenever he plays the bad guy (300, Punisher) he never seems as menacing as he should. He definitely fits the role and doesn't do anything wrong really, he just....well, he just isn't too intimidating. Not sure if the blame is to be leveled at West or the script but none of that changes the fact that whenever he was on screen my interest started to fade. I had the complete opposite reaction to Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkas who infused the digital creation with the perfect amount of humor and gravitas. All the Tharks for that matter were well represented which is a blessing considering the amount of screen time they take up . Which brings me back to my biggest beef with the film, too much talk and not nearly enough show.

There are some very cool scenes in John Carter, just not enough of them.

All that exposition I mentioned a little bit ago filled in almost two thirds of the films running time which didn't really bother me as I watched it but in retrospect I couldn't recall very many memorable scenes from the film. There were a decent enough amount of set pieces from the aerial battle that John Carter engages in with a fleet of flying fortresses to the arena battle with the white apes but beyond those couple of examples the film felt very light on overall action. Is a lot of action really a requirement though? Looking back at something like A New Hope you might be surprised to find that other than the last attack on the death star there really weren't very many traditional action scenes. So the answer to that question would be no, but that doesn't mean a little more meat on the bones wouldn't have been appreciated. Thankfully there was some good character development to help alleviate that problem. The effects for the film were top notch as well with some truly awe inspiring sights ( I personally thought the mobile city was pretty darn cool), the only problem was that there weren't enough scenes that took full advantage of such an imaginative world as this is.

There I go again, making it sound as though I disliked my experience with John Carter which couldn't be further from the truth. I may not have fell in love with it the way I would have liked but overall I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent on Barsoom and don't regret a second of it. The real question is what lies ahead for the would be franchise? The filmmakers chose wisely by giving the film a definitive end, when it is all over we are not left wondering what will happen next. But they also left enough unanswered questions to make way for a sequel. At this time it looks as though that may not happen due to all the mixed reviews and the poor box office returns which is just a shame. The world they created would benefit from a return visit and I for one would gladly take a trip to Barsoom again if given the chance. As far as a recommendation goes, I would be weary of what you are getting yourself into with it. It packs just enough thrills and interesting concepts into a very familiar package that should be enough to entertain just about anyone willing to give it a chance. I would have to say considering the bile that is currently clogging up the cinemas you could do a lot worse, so when you get the chance you should definitely...




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