Friday, March 2, 2012

New Release Review: John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Following great success with Pixar's Finding Nemo and Wall-E, Andrew Stanton is making his first foray into live-action filmmaking with Disney's John Carter. The film makes the first screen presence of the central protagonist in Edgar Rice Burrough’s 11-volume Barsoom series.


Incredibly, John Carter (here portrayed by Taylor Kitsch) first appeared back in 1912, where it was originally serialized over six monthly installments in a magazine called The All Story. These installments later became A Princess of Mars, which this film, adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, is largely based on.

The story takes shape following the early introduction of Carter’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), the character that frames the narrative and is summoned to ensure that the late John Carter’s bizarre burial requests are followed through. During his instructions, Carter has documented an extraordinary tale, and it is literally read by Burroughs to the audience. Carter was a former Confederate Captain during the Civil War, who after defecting and searching for gold, is rounded up to return to service. In his attempts to escape from his Colonel (Bryan Cranston), Carter hides out in a cave in the middle of the desert. There he discovers a room lined with gold and a chained pendant that suddenly transports him to a strange land, later revealed to be Barsoom, or Mars.

After realizing that the change in gravity has enhanced his physical capabilities, he finds himself in the company of the Tharks - a race of four-limbed alien creatures - before becoming part of the conflict raging between the nations present on the red planet. Sab Than (Dominic West), the Prince of Zodanga, has been assigned a brilliant power by the Holy Therns, led by Mark Strong’s Matai Shang, and is beset on taking over the realm of Helium, led by the Jeddak, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds). Fearing the overthrow, Tardos agrees to allow Sab Than to marry his strong-willed but resistant daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). When Thorin tries to overthrow Than’s aerial fleet as he enters Helium (one of the film's more exciting action pieces) she is rescued by the now fully-adapted Carter, witnessing the battle from the Thark city. Believing him to be their only chance of victory she leads him on a quest, which he selfishly believes will result in a return to Earth, before ultimately realising he is an integral part of her plan to save Barsoom.


Honestly, for a film with such a big budget (in the vicinity of $250 Million) and featuring some pretty interesting visual effects and motion capture, it isn’t a very engaging or memorable story at all. Taking the longest route possible to bring a viewer around to an inevitable epic final confrontation, bogging the story down with a pending marriage, a strained father-daughter relationship, Carter’s prolonged assimilation into the Thark tribe, and a journey to discover the secret of the ‘Spider’ (shrugs), we are introduced to a number of one-dimensional human characters we don’t really care about and asked to trudge through a number of action sequences that disappointingly lack tension. 

It doesn't help that John Carter is full of mediocre acting, and often-inaudible dialogue. Taylor Kitsch seems to have a lot of fun in the role, but didn't transform the character into one I am anticipating to see again on the big screen. Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy (Antony to Hinds' Caesar in HBO's Rome) have so little screen time, they are pretty much wasted, while Mark Strong plays a bald-headed villain...again.

It is a bore, and very little stuck with me. Disney, reportedly, has shot themselves in the foot by funding this film. Avatar fans are obviously the target audience, but despite some cool moments – the arena battle didn't play as big a part as expected, but it does feature Carter emerging through the interior of a slain blue-blooded albino gorilla - it doesn't generate anything close to Cameron's awe-insiring (if also horrendously plotted) experience.

John Carter, both in story and in production, has many evident influences. Almost every scene bears some resemblance to a Hollywood film that has preceded it. Viewers will recognize similarities to Avatar (Star Wars and The Fellowship of the Ring too) with Carter being held captive within the Thark tribe. Though he doesn’t spark up a romance with the Jeddak’s daughter (voiced by Samantha Morton), she does become an ally. While the tribe fears him and treats him with distrust, their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) is intrigued by his abnormal jumping abilities and believes he could aid them in their struggle against Zodanga. But, there are also a few Thark warriors who hate him for no reason other than to emerge as antagonists later in the film. There has to be some sort of conflict of course, but all of the villains are so thinly developed. Still, I did like most of the sequences with the Tharks – except the use of Carter's ‘canine’ (and that is a loose term) sidekick.


Having not read any of the novels, I can’t comment on how well the descriptions in the novel are conveyed to the screen. It sure seems like Stanton admires the material, but surely it just doesn’t translate as well as intended. The film’s length becomes a burden and surpassing two hours isn't justified, considering that there are only a couple of action set pieces. We have mentioned the visual effects and tech work, and it is mostly very impressive. This is also a 3D film – and far from the best the technology has offered. I remember being impressed by Michael Giacchino’s score, but it doesn’t come close to his best Pixar collaborations (Up anyone?).

While there are some rousing moments that get the adrenalin going, and a few laughs - and this is an admirable quality, the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously - the film's good humour still doesn't result in a great deal of fun for the audience. If you think this looked a bit like Avatar, you're right. It is almost exactly the same. Considering Andrew Stanton is involved, it is disappointing. John Carter is a confusing, overlong, middle-of-the-road science fiction fantasy that will only work for genre fans familiar with the novel, and young people who like superheroes with the ability to jump really high.

My Rating: ★★ (C-)

25 comments:

  1. I've actually read the novels, many years ago. (My husband had been a fan of Burroughs since he was a child). I remember them as silly but charming. I'm afraid this is a must-see for me, regardless of the reviews. But I think I'll revisit at least the first novel first.

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    1. You and me both, Jessica. I haven't just read the novels (all 11 of them), I've read them over and over. I grew up on the damn things.

      The last trailer makes it look like they're playing fast and loose with the original story, and possibly blending the first couple of novels into this film.

      Disappointing, but not surprising, and as sad as it is for me to say it, they've more than likely got my money.

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    2. I really don't know whether you both will like this. If it captures the fun/silliness the way you read it in the novels then I think you will enjoy them. From my understanding it is predominantly based on A Princess of Mars. Based on your love for the novels, definitely check it out. I had no prior knowledge and I couldn't get into it. Felt like too many preceding films - and it was confusing, and not all that engaging. Also, the 3D is nothing to write home about. Plenty have loved it, so don't take my word ;-)

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    3. Hard to draw the viewer in the way a novel can in a movie, and still tell everything that's in the book. It's a fast read and in the public domain, you should read the first one at least, and really the first three, links are on Wikipedia under Barsoom at the end of the page..

      If you happened to see Star Wars 1-3 first, then Star Wars, do you say it followed them? Almost everything Sci-Fi you've ever seen that was any good took elements from these books. This isn't like Avatar, Avatar is like this, because the writers grew up reading Borroughs, or reading other books whose authors grew up reading Borroughs. You're imagining the cart comes before the horse, or at least that the 2009 movie came before the 1912 book. This story is the original.
      Hopefully this does well enough to get a second pass, and someone at Disney understands. A difficult story to bring to the screen, it has the record for 'development hell' for a reason.
      Again just read that first book, then see if you can stop. And know ahead that the fifth book is one of the better books you'll ever read.

      Of course has the limitations of a movie. Also apparently the 3D is post production, so probably better to just watch the 2D.

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    4. The film has not dissuaded me from reading the novels. I am sure they are fantastic. What annoyed me more than the fact that it seemed so similar to other sci-fi titles - and the fact that it was the 'original' wasn't a feature I initially considered, which was an error on my part - was the fact that the story was so convoluted and confusing.

      It is hard to keep track of who is who - and the film is just far too long. I was lost early, and I was never emotionally invested enough to go along for the ride. While the effects are really outstanding at times, the action set pieces aren't mind-blowing, and features like dialogue and acting are undeniably corny. I just wasn't that entertained, and that is disappointing, because it seems like there was some fantastic source material.

      Thanks for reading and for the comment, Alan.

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    5. No, Andy, if you want "developed" characters, you're just in the wrong franchise. The Barsoom novels are about archetypes and how they are used to comment on society. Full stop. Burroughs was an admirer of the antebellum code of the gentleman, and these novels are about how that code is superior to any other.

      Matai Shang, Sab Than and countless other villains within the novel series are even LESS developed than they were in this movie. They are venal 2D caricatures at best. Even John Carter does not go through any sort of character arc in the entire series, and does not need to. He's a cipher.

      This is an instance, really, where you HAVE to understand the source material in order to appreciate the film. Stanton does a VERY respectful job of adapting the first two books (really the entire first book and a smidgen of the second) to the big screen. In a very honest way, the movie is better than the books, even though I read the entire series at 12 years old and have re-read them dozens of times since.

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    6. Thanks for reading Troy. It does seem to be the consensus that having read and been a fan of the novels improves this film experience, but I still feel like the film should be able to stand alone. On that level, I don't think it is effective. I haven't read the books but it does seem like Stanton and his screenwriters admire the material, but because this story has been beaten to the big screen by other Hollywood projects, its originality doesn't seem apparent. It is a shame.

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  2. Ohh, I need to see more of Mark Strong as the good guy (Tinker Tailor and Emma are the only two I know!). Ah well, I never really had high hopes for this one. Nice write up!

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    1. Wasn't Strong great in TTSS? A lot of people have been turned off by the trailer. I went in expecting to have a good time and be wowed by some awesome visuals. The latter didn't even happen. Kitsch is solid (I guess), but most of the cast are wasted.

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  3. Was hoping this would be decent enough to warrant a watch. Guess not! No wonder Disney has so much trouble marketing it ;)

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    1. Check out some other reviews too. There are some fans. I can see why Disney have had trouble marketing it. It's for the Avatar crowd, and I bet very few of them have read the novels. Older generations will have read the novels, and I have to assume they are going to find it pretty silly. Shame.

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  4. I knew from the minute I saw the trailer that it would be bad, so no surprise here, reading your review! I will skip it in theaters for sure, maybe on DVD? we shall see!

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    1. Give it a go eventually. It has its moments.

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  5. Fantasic review Andrew, keep up the great work.

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    1. Thanks Cam. We do agree on this one, that's for sure.

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  6. Well, if it's derivative of every sic-fi movie ever, it's because every sic-fi movie ever is cribbed ideas from the books. Maybe there's some sort of ironic point hidden in this thing.

    Dunno. Probably gonna see it anyway.

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    1. That is a really good point Seb.

      They are very old and no doubt have been an influence on plenty of texts. Say these films came out when Star Wars did? Would they have been as accepted in the same way? I don't know. Possibly.

      But because so many science fiction films have come out between then and now, this feels much too similar (and it doesn't embrace it in an ironic homage sort of way either). The similarities in plot (not to mention that fact that it is unnecessarily convoluted with thinly developed characters) it is hard to get involved in it. The film relies on the action set pieces, and they are strong (but not groundbreaking). I was having too much trouble following what was going on to get caught up in the fun too. Not only is the content similar, a feature I was a bit too harsh on perhaps (they are adapted from a source), but also in style.

      Oh, still go see it. This is a personal reaction. I have a feeling it won't be well-received, though.

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  7. The only reason I thought about seeing it is Andrew Stanton since he did make one of my all-time favorite movies in WALL-E.

    I wasn't impressed by what I saw in the trailers though I tried to keep an open mind. Then I heard about the film's massive budget and that worried me. I don't like to go against anyone but considering the hordes of money going into these kind of movies. I didn't want to support it either.

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    1. I loved WALL-E too. Stanton has a great grasp of creating a unique world, but this is thin on originality or character.

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  8. I'll probably still go see it, but the comparisons to Avatar have me very disappointed. I hoped that they just didn't know how to market it and it would still be good. Thanks for the early review.

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    1. Embargo ended at midnight on March 2. A group of us in Sydney got our reviews up. A mixed bag. Some loved it. Myself and a few others were critical.

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  9. I saw the trailer for this before "The Artist" which I thought was peculiat to advertise something like this before silent movie. The film looks awful - like a blend of two movies I hate Star Wars and Avatar. Also I'm seriously worried about Mark Strong - he is such a great actor, why is he wasting his time on all of these crappy blockbusters.

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    1. It is unfortunate because the trailer hasn't done the film any favours at all. If you don't like Star Wars or Avatar I'm going to assume you won't like this at all.

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  10. "John Carter, both in story and in production, has many evident influences. Almost every scene bears some resemblance to a Hollywood film that has preceded it."

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but read several of the books, and it struck me that many of the things I see in all the Hollywood films (Even serials) were preceeded by the book. Maybe that's why it seems like Avatar or Star Wars came first, but the John Carter books were started in 1912. I'm not trying to outright defend the movie. It's just a thought. Like I said, I haven't seen it yet. Just giving my 2 cents.

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    1. You do make an excellent point, and I accept that it was an error on my part to be so harsh on the film regarding its similarities to films that likely have been influenced by the source material of this film.

      I still did not think it was a successful blend of the Western and the Science Fiction fantasy adventure. There were some fun moments, but overall, this poorly paced, convoluted mess offers few surprises, endless exposition (that doesn't really aid an audience's understanding) and disappointing action. The design of Mars and the construction of the world is impressive, and you can see that Stanton has tried his best to give the film the Pixar treatment. It just doesn't quite get there. It was so forgettable. Days later I found it hard to remember anything interesting about the film.

      Thanks for reading, your points are very valid. Yes, the story is original, but the make-up of the film feels all-to similar. That is unfortunate because I believe the novels are excellent.

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