Friday, July 6, 2012

"John Carter" (2012)

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and Samantha Morton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Michael Andrews and Michael Chabon
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 132 Minutes

Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Virginia finds himself in a jam when he's captured by Union soldiers in Arizona who intend to conscript him to duty against the local Apaches.  Instead, Carter escapes and takes refuge in a mysterious cave where he's attacked by a strange man who mutters words in a foreign language.  Suddenly, a burst of blue energy transports Carter to the planet Mars, known to the locals as Barsoom.

There, Carter is captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), Jeddak or king of the Tharks, a race of green martian warriors.  Instead of being killed, Tars Tarkas takes a liking to Carter after the human displays incredible powers thanks to his denser bones and muscles and the lower gravity of Mars.  Carter is able to leap across huge distances and is stronger than any martian warrior.

Meanwhile, a race of red-skinned martian men who look human except for their red skin, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), Jeddak of Zodanga, wage war on the red-skinned martians of Helium. Sab Than has been given a powerful weapon that harnesses the energy from the 9th Ray (whatever that means), making him unbeatable.  He was given this power by the Therns, a race of beings martians believe mythical.

Helium is ruled by Jeddak Tardos Mors (Cirian Hinds), who has promised Sab Than the hand of his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in marriage to end the war.  Dejah tries to escape and is hunted down by Sab Than.  Carter rescues her, but after she and Carter enter the Thark temple without permission, they are banished along with Carter's new pet Woola (a sort of alien dog) and Tars Tarkas' daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton).  The three travel to the south to discover a means of sending Carter back to Earth, but instead discover that the Therns have control of the powerful energies Sab Than is using against the forces of Helium, and that they can send Carter home.

But Dejah and Carter are captured and brought to Helium, where Dejah will be forced to marry Sab Than, who intends to sack the city anyway.  Meanwhile, Carter learns that the Thern Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is not only manipulating Mars toward its destruction, but may plan to do the same to Earth.  Carter must figure out a way to defeat Sab Than and the Therns and save the Princess of Mars.

"John Carter" pretty famously flopped at the box office earlier this year.  The reviews are thoroughly mixed on it, and it's not like the movie opened big and fell off.  No one went to see it in the first place.  So the reason "John Carter" failed is not likely that it's a bad movie, but that no one had any interest in seeing it.  Indeed, given its godawful advertising campaign, it seemed even Disney didn't want anyone to see it, either.

So, is "John Carter" a good movie?  It's alright.  It is certainly entertaining, and it is a rather gorgeous film in its use of color and detail and the designs of its creatures and costumes.  But even at 136 minutes, "John Carter" feels like it's rushing.  It moves quickly from one idea to the next, which is, in some respects, faithful to the original book which was published as a serial - so each chapter was supposed to be kind of a new adventure and they all get strung together.  But as a movie, unlike, say, "Star Wars," which owes a lot to "John Carter," it doesn't seem to hold up as well when put to a movie.

Character development is at a minimum here.  There's rivalry between Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church), an underling, but it's underdeveloped.  As is an antagonism between Sola and another Thark female, Sarkoja (Polly Walker).  In the novel, these relationships were clearly explained by the author.  In the movie, they just kind of exist and we're left to wonder why it is these people hate each other.

Carter's romance with Dejah Thoris is one of the relationships in the film that works well.  But even this would have benefited from greater screentime as we really need more to understand Carter's motivation.  His reasons for being such a loner are eventually revealed, but it feels simplistic rather than powerful.

Still, despite this, "John Carter" is fairly entertaining.  The action sequences are fun and well staged, and the whole film features a great deal of impressive special effects.  The Tharks are rendered entirely in CGI, and quite well in fact.  The Tharks are expressive and very detailed.  Other creatures like Woola and the white apes, are slightly less impressive, but are still blockbuster effects material.  The planet Mars itself is gorgeous, more than simply open, rocky desert.  The designs of the Thark villages and the city of Helium are interesting and varied.

Director Andrew Stanton, making his first live-action film after a successful career at Pixar, makes some great images here.  He knows where to point his camera and how to make his action sequences thrilling without getting lost in shakiness.  Ultimately it's the script that fails "John Carter," and given Stanton's work at Pixar, he deserves more than to be known for a box office failure.  "John Carter" isn't a bad film, but it's not a great one.  It is entertaining, and it is gorgeous, but it rings hollow.