John Carter – Movie ReviewMarch 14, 2012
Brad Bird, a veteran filmmaker mainly known for animated films/TV shows such as his work on The Simpsons, The Iron Giant, along with a couple of films at Pixar (The Incredibles and Ratatouille), recently made his live-action debut with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. When the film was released three months ago, I kind of expected it to suck, but then my brother and I saw it at IMAX and I was absolutely blown away with how awesome it ended up being. My point is that since Andrew Stanton is making his live-action debut with this film, John Carter, I guess I have similar expectations with his first live-action movie. Stanton is known for directing Finding Nemo and WALL●E (two of the greatest animated films of all-time, if I might add), along with scripting a number of Pixar’s other films, so shouldn’t John Carter be a cinematic treat as well? This is Hollywood’s riskiest film of the year since most of today’s moviegoers have no clue that John Carter is a 100-year-old character, so many will probably pass this off a cheap knockoff of Star Wars with a bare-chested man swinging around a sword. Even so, has yet another ex-Pixar director proved that people who mainly worked on animated films can be successful in traditional filmmaking?
In 1881, a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Darly Sabara) is told of the sudden and rather mysterious passing of his uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). John was a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and three years following the war he is prospecting for gold in Arizona. This is a story that is chronicled in John Carter’s journal, which Burroughs inherits along with his uncle’s estate. After John and Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) of the 7th Cavalry come into conflict with some Apaches, the two hide in a cave and then John Carter is mysteriously transported away into a strange, new world. He soon discovers that the world in which he was transported to is Mars, or as its inhabitants call it, “Barsoom.” The lesser gravitational force on Barsoom gives John Carter incredible strength, increased agility and the ability to jump imaginable heights, which impresses a Thark (a humanoid species native to Barsoom) named Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe). John is soon made aware of an ongoing civil war between two rival city-states of red Martians, Helium and Zodanga, in which the conflict is orchestrated by the Holy Thern (a sort of god) named called Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the princess of Helium, is the key to the end of the war since her marriage to the prince of Zodanga (Dominic West) will seal a treaty between the two societies. However, when Princess Dejah runs away from her destiny and is twisted into an even greater international conflict, she begins to drag John Carter into the mess, forcing him to make a deep, moral decision: side with the Tharks, Helium or not engage in war altogether?
Whenever you have a film like this coming to theatres, most of the things you may hear include “eh, looks dumb,” or perhaps “looks like a rip-off of Star Wars.” From the surface, John Carter really does seem like an old-fashioned sci-fi film that steals plot elements from Star Wars, Avatar, and many other popular sci-fi movies. However, the case with John Carter is almost the complete opposite of that, because this film is based off material that is almost a century old. Although Edgar Rice Burroughs is written into the story as John Carter’s nephew, he was a real American science fiction writer who originally wrote the film’s story in his first Barsoom novel called A Princess of Mars (obviously referring to Princess Dejah). I myself have never read any of Burroughs’ books, but at least while watching this film I was able to understand that the story is one of the oldest tales of sci-fi in American literature, and that made John Carter much more enjoyable for me than it would have been if I hadn’t known that this was based off a classic novel. Even so, there are always problems that adaptations of science fictions face with condensing pages upon pages of mythology within the original, published works into one film that lasts just over two hours (supposedly Green Lantern suffered greatly because of this). Unfortunately, John Carter does suffer a little bit from this, along with some pacing issues. For much of the first hour and a half or so, the characters are spewing out all of these names for these different places, historical events, beings, etc that I was confused as to why some of the main events in the story were occurring. Thankfully, Andrew Stanton and the other screenwriters manage to explain things by the time the ending credits roll, but it’s still undeniable that John Carter tells a somewhat confusing story for much of its runtime. The pacing is slightly off as well, and some of the dialogue is absolutely ridiculous (remember “that don’t look like a fair fight,” and “you are ugly, but you are beautiful” from the trailer?), but nonetheless, the story of John Carter is very entertaining. The situation surrounding John Carter is somewhat similar to that of Avatar, because although the quality of the storytelling is not all that great, somehow the old-fashioned Disney charm of the film is still there (probably due to the visuals, which I’ll get to later), and this is an adventure that is easy to be immersed into.
For one thing, the premise is rather interesting, and the story’s main protagonist is surprisingly likeable. John Carter is a man disillusioned with war and what people consider to be moral causes for fighting after his tumultuous experiences with the Civil War, and this makes his adventure on Barsoom (or Mars, however you want to call it) all the more compelling. Like Stanton’s two previous films, Finding Nemo and WALL-E, John Carter is a story of the main protagonist’s journey to return home, but he is also faced with true tests of his morals and experience self-discovery. John Carter is also a decent allegory for the destructive effects of war, and after the film was over I was left thinking about how war has affected our society over the course of history. Oh heck no, it’s nowhere near as profound of a war film like Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now in that sense, but those themes are there and makes the story. Princess Dejah is also a pretty well-developed character, for she is one of the key characters in helping to define the theme that your decisions affect many people, not only yourself. In my opinion, the villains are rather weak though, for they are rather one-sided as opposed to John Carter, Princess Dejah and crew; Sab Than, the leader of Zodanga, is simply a man seeking for power, which makes him completely forgettable.
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