John Carter Review

(2.5 STARS)

It’s hard to believe a film so skillfully crafted and brimming with so many ideas could elicit such a blah reaction. But this is John Carter. Director Andrew Stanton‘s live-action debut is a hodgepodge of epic battles, clunky dialogue, interesting mythology, and trite romance. Much has been made of the film’s massive $250 million budget (not including marketing expenses), but now having seen the film, it’s hard to argue with the end result. It’s debatable whether John Carter actually works, but the only evidence in its favor is Stanton’s jaw-dropping scope. It wipes away much of the sour taste left by the film’s pretty dreadful screenplay and manages to make John Carter something that, while not completely involving, is entertaining enough to get a pass. If only the spectacle was coupled with a soul, it could have been really special.

The film takes place on two worlds, Earth and Mars (aka Jarsoom and Barsoom). On the latter planet, a thousand-year-old civil war has reached a turning point. The leader of the city of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), is approached by a mysterious, mythical being (Mark Strong) with an all-powerful weapon and a message: Follow my instructions, and you’ll rule the entire planet.

Meanwhile, on Jarsoom, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is struggling to survive in the post-Civil War West. He’s searching for gold, which would help him start a new life, but after a brush with a law, he finds himself on the run and hiding in a cave from both American soldiers and a group of Apache. The cave, it turns out, is a portal to Barsoom, and Carter transports himself there without realizing it.

Once there, Carter is struck by the strange, desolate environment, as well as his ability to jump sky high. He comes across a group of four-handed green men speaking an unfamiliar language, and he’s ultimately taken prisoner by them. But he later proves himself as an extremely capable warrior, and when he saves a Martian princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), he’s immediately recruited to lead the armies of a number of different groups, including that of Helium, Dejah Thoris’ city and the only group capable of stopping Zodanga’s march to planetary dominance. But all he wants to do is go home.

Stanton’s Mars/Barsoom is the film’s big star (sorry, Taylor Kitsch). Every cent of the film’s budget is visible—from the monstrous creatures to the gorgeous cities and bizarre flying vehicles. Besides being a feast for the eyes, all this contributes to the film’s grand mythology. To steal a phrase from Aladdin, this is a whole new world. Carter is new to it, like us, so the sense of discovery is pervasive, especially in the film’s first hour.

Though the action certainly ramps up in the film’s second half, some fun is lost. Part of this has to do with the film’s screenplay, which really cuts corners to get where it needs to go in just two hours. The big problem, however, is the de-emphasis on character development. The film’s action is impressive, but it’s also soulless. Though one can’t help but admire what is happening onscreen visually, these sequences are boilerplate, and by, say, the third battle, you’ll be tempted to start checking your watch.

Taylor Kitsch has the look of a big action hero, but he’s just not talented enough to overcome the written deficiencies associated with this role. He’s, sadly, forced to give some just dreadfully cheesy proclamations in the name of Tharks(!) and Helium(!). There are some real howlers throughout the film, and in the hands of someone more capable, they could have been pulled off. But no one in John Carter—Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong—gets off scot-free here.

There’s a certain amount of disbelief needed, obviously, to make this kind of film work. But if you look at films like Star Wars and The Matrix, which create weird and wild new worlds successfully and with a certain degree of believability and authenticity, John Carter feels second-rate. It’s not the all out bomb it could have been, and I can’t help but hope it ends up miraculously making its money back (for Stanton’s sake). But I also can’t recommend it without serious reservations. Check it out because it looks great, but don’t expect the next awesome blockbuster. Overall, it’s extraordinarily average.

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