- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by David Medsker
o pleasure comes from saying unkind words about a movie like “John Carter.” It does what all good films should do: it dreams impossibly big. You can practically see director Andrew Stanton geeking out as he assembles those sweeping shots of the moving city of Zodanga as it ravages the Martian landscape. What undoes Stanton’s visual spectacle is the same thing that tripped up “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”: the source material is awfully pulpy, convoluted and underwritten at the same time. It’s easy to be fascinated with how “John Carter” looks, but it’s difficult to get emotionally involved.
Shortly after the Civil War, Confederate Army captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is looking for gold in Arizona. In his attempt to escape a group of Apaches, John stumbles upon a cave filled with strange and exotic gems. He finds a medallion that transports him to another desert, but when he begins to walk, he discovers the gravity is much weaker. John eventually realizes that he is on Mars – the locals call it Barsoom – and his superhuman strength and abilities draw the attention of the nomadic Thark tribe (tall, green, four arms, tusks) as well as the humanoids in the warring cities of Helium and Zodanga. It is not long before John plays a pivotal role in the livelihoods of all concerned.
There is an abrupt shift in tone in the transition from Earth to Mars. The movie opens with an amusing bit where John continues to escape from Corporal Powell (Bryan Cranston), but the lightheartedness disappears once John arrives on Barsoom. John also begins speaking proper, accent-free English after he’s transported (he said ‘ain’t’ a lot on Earth). The latter is a minor quibble, but the former is not; given the familiarity of the plot line involving the lovely Helium Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) being forced to marry the general of the Zodangan army as a peace offering, along with the mysterious Thern race who silently plot mankind’s destruction, a little levity would have gone a long way. As it is, the movie turns ponderous when it should be soaring.
Stanton swings for the fences in terms of the look, and with the exception of a few clumsy CGI shots (some of the Tharks have that rigid, unnatural, pre-production look to their movements), he succeeds. The acting, however, seems to be an afterthought. Kitsch’s performance isn’t particularly bad, but he doesn’t command the presence that he should, and it cripples nearly every scene he’s in. Instead, Collins’ warrior princess Dejah is the most watchable human here, and sadly, no one else comes close, not even the usually reliable Mark Strong as the head Thern Matai Shang. Had Stanton given the characters as much personality as he gave to the Barsoomian landscape, this would be a much different, and much better, movie.
Give Disney credit for going all out here, but “John Carter” only gets it half right. Stanton shows good technical skill in his live action directorial debut, but based on his work at Pixar (he directed “Finding Nemo” and “WALL·E”), it seemed fair to expect this one to have some heart, and it simply doesn’t. Pity.