Barsoom brawl – John Carter review

John Carter – Starring Taylor KitschLynn Collins, and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Rated M. Originally published March 2, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

John Carter arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia July 4, 2012

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 Jediwe 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 attemptAndrew Stanton‘s John Carter – an 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 on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia July 4, 2012

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