Barsoom brawl – John Carter review

John CarterStarring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

It’s hard to imagine a time in which Star Wars wasn’t such a megalathon (a word I have invented to encapsulate the incomparable hugeness of its influence and cultural infiltration; nothing in the English language conveys it properly, does it?). For those of us born after the release of Return of the Jedi, we have known no world in which George Lucas’ space saga isn’t a universal touchstone and reference point. Still, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to see A New Hope (although it wasn’t actually called that at the time) in 1977, without the knowledge there would be sequels, and – ahem – prequels, to follow. Would I have scoffed at the silly planet and character names? Would the sometimes unconvincing special effects distract me? Would Darth Vader – unbeknownst to me that he had fathered Luke and Leia – be a satisfying antagonist, or would he just be another big ol’ baddie with an undefined agenda to rule the cosmos?

These are, more or less, the issues that have plagued the ambitious franchise-building features released in its wake. James Cameron‘s Avatar – which stuck to some trite storytelling tropes, but felt ferocious and immersive – pulled it off. Green Lantern is a recent example of a failed attempt. Andrew Stanton‘s John Carteran adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 100-year-old Barsoom series – fares only a little better than that misfire. As I watched Pixar alum Stanton’s live-action debut, admittedly, not exactly engrossed by his tale of battling armies on the surface of Mars, I thought of Luke Skywalker’s plight and asked those aforementioned questions of myself. The truth is, I think I would have loved Star Wars even without a familiarity of Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and the rest of the gang. The storytelling is tight; the performances are charming; the action is electrifying; the experience is fun. Which brings us to the matter at hand.

John Carter, for all of its pricey spectacle, is a mostly impenetrable picture unlikely to please children nor adults. Stanton’s previous two projects – Finding Nemo and WALL-E – proved he could straddle that line expertly, transporting audiences to an entirely alien environment and entertaining young and old alike. This film tells of two human-ish tribes at war on Mars (or, as they call it, Barsoom). When the leader of the Zodanga tribe, Sab Than, (Dominic West) is gifted with a powerful ray by the planet’s omnipotent watcher (Mark Strong), he begins to wipe out the people of Helium indiscriminately, much to the chagrin of their princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Meanwhile, the CGI Martians of Thark keep to themselves, betting on which army will ultimately prove victorious, but hoping they’ll just wipe one another out. If you’re keeping up, I commend you.

Over on Earth – circa 1870 –  a gruff Virginian treasure-seeker by the name of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) flees Confederate soldiers and winds up accidentally transported to Barsoom. He discovers the difference in gravity on the red planet allows him to leap great distances and also affords him super-strength. Though he’s first treated like an animal by the Tharks and their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), his unparalleled powers and compassion sees him recruited by Dejah to help her end the conflict.

The script, penned by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and author Michael Chabon, does not ably construct this universe (a framing device involving a young Edgar Rice Burroughs pays off in the end, but only further confuses us in the beginning). So much time is spent explaining the lay of the land, little is left to craft memorable characters, or involve us in the struggle, or show us why it might be a bad thing for Sab Than to rule Barsoom (for all the to-ing and fro-ing we do across the planet, we don’t much get to see how the place actually works, or what the people living there even do. See also: Thor). Kitsch is likable as a reluctant hero, and Collins works her Princess Leia shtick nicely, but the antagonists are a non-entity.

However, once all the confusion regarding names and locations in the first half fades away, we are treated to a series of fairly thrilling action sequences. The film’s extravagant $250 million budget can be seen on the screen in the mostly sumptuous special effects. Who knows? Perhaps the sequel – if we ever get there – will fill in the gaps and expand on John Carter’s legend now all the expositional heavy-lifting has been done. But is that an acceptable excuse for an epic to be this underwhelming?


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

John Carter arrives in Australian cinemas March 8, 2012.

19 Responses to “Barsoom brawl – John Carter review”

  1. “Who knows? Perhaps the sequel – if we ever get there – will fill in the gaps and expand on John Carter’s legend now all the expositional heavy-lifting has been done.”

    Learn grammar please.

  2. “now all the” isn’t grammar. Maybe he meant “now that all the”.

  3. As a 7-year old viewing Star Wars it was just jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. The fact that the sequel was ESB was all the more OMG (before OMG was invented). Yes it’s cool to ‘diss Lucas now but at the time the impact cannot be dummed down.

    • Yes! I was 4 when ANH came out and I didn’t get to see it until I was about 6 or 7 when it came out on TV, before that the only SW I got was ads, previews, news stories and interviews on TV that I had to piece together, and gossip from other kids at school. It was still one of the most awesome experiences of my life.

  4. since you were too young to see star wars you were too young to read John Carter Warlord of Mars comics. I haven’t seen the film yet but the basic story was never that hard to figure out.

  5. There was a similar problem attempting to bring the “Dune” books to the big screen. If you knew the books, the film was good, if not – utterly confusing (I had to explain the whole thing to my wife later).

  6. Sometimes a big budget Hollywood spectacle needs to be just that: a spectacle. Story & character can often be of secondary importance, and if the success of Avatar has proven anything, almost irrelevant. They don’t make these films in a bubble, hoping for a sequel to flesh out the story. If you’re a studio spending $250M on this thing, then you show it to test audiences and tweak the storyline according to the feedback. I’m sure Andrew Stanton & his crew made the best film they could, and reviews like this are just inevitable whem you try to compare it to a one-in-a-million classic like Star Wars. Instead, read the John Carter books & comics, gain some knowledge about the subject matter, THEN make your comments with some authority. I for one am genuinely excited to see this movie, and I have no doubt that I will enjoy it for what it is: a spectacle.

  7. I agree with Carolyn. At 12 years old in the cinema, from the first scene of that enormous spacecraft awe was inspired. The story itself was meh, just cowboys and Indians in space. I can understand why younger people are no more interested in it than playing Pong on a B&W television.

    Witnessing the evolution of everything that the young take for granted makes you appreciate what we have now and where it originated.

  8. I was eighteen at the time, the story was simple, some of the acting sucked, the characterisation was cheezy (Aren’t you a little short to be a storm trooper?), but Star Wars had heart. So did Avatar, Silent Running and Iron Man. Thor didn’t or Iron Man II or Green Lantern or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

  9. Sounds good to me, actually. Mind you its set in space and I got free tix, so I’m hoping it meets all my other criteria for excellence too

  10. I have often read critiques by reviewers in the past and been disappointed by what they’ve written – only to see the movie and then thoroughly enjoy the same film. I have learnt to take these reviews much more lightly now – and be my own judge.


  11. I can’t wait to watch the John Carter movie, this film looks like a very good storyline and a new genre (I just found out that this film comes from the novel after reading from the web). Could this film be able to compete with Avatar?

    I hear this film in its production cost is high enough. I hope this film can eventually enter the ranks of the box office!

  12. for all the science fiction movie buffs… you have to see this film its 10/10 ^_^
    went to see * JOHN CARTER OF MARS MOVIE * tonight…… all i can say is …..
    i have been waiting for over 35 years for this to be made into a live action movie after reading the books ( Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series ) when i was younger.
    well i can definitely say it was worth the wait to see the book novels finally brought to life and living colour at last and in 3D no less which made it even more worthwhile watching… on a score of 1 to 10 … 1 being the crappiest movie ever to 10 being right up there on a par with Avatar, Alien, Titanic, Prometheus etc i would rate this movie as this …>>>>> 10 / 10 … O.o top marks to the director, actors, and film crew that made this and hopefully it may lead to a couple of sequels in the near future…… ^_^ ^_^ ^_^

    • I agree. It was great movie, dripping with sci-fi tropes and plenty of humour. The 3D was great and the jumping effects were very well done. Can’t wait to see it again.

  13. Good on you, Spatch, Dave J, Kothos and Carolyn. Star Wars (as it used to be called) was one of the great cultural experiences for me when I was 15. It’s too easy now to take cheap shots at what was a revolution in populist, mainstream movies. Star Wars rocked then and it still goes alright, I reckon.
    I unashamedly loved the John Carter movie. That’s probably partly due to my reading Princess of Mars when I was in my teens and my dad buying it when he was in his late teens. The movie had a lot to live up to for me and I think Stanton and co. brought the bacon home. It’s a great romantic adventure and a great homage to Burroughs’ writing.

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