Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Carter Reviewed

There is no doubt that Disney makes an animated feature like no other, but their live action endeavors tend to be hit or miss. On one hand, we have the Pirates of the Caribbean movies...which are a guilty pleasure of mine even when they make little sense. On the other, we have films like Condorman, Race to Witch Mountain and to a lesser degree (but relevant to this review), Tron: Legacy. While many seemed to like the revitalization and to an extent, re-imagination of Tron, many more seemed to find it long winded, over complicated and fantastically nonsensical. Now, Disney continues this unfortunate tradition with John Carter.

John is a tormented man digging into rock in the hopes of finding his fortune in gold as the denizens of the old west call him mad. A run in with government men who seem to want him for military talents he had long forsaken drives him to a chance encounter with an alien visitor and blamo, our broody hero is off to Mars. There he finds his Earthling physiology allows him to jump farther, punch harder and be more bare-chestier than any red-orange skinned Martian could ever hope to be. Without giving too much of the story away, John is taken in by native 4 armed aliens who treat him like a pet/weapon until a Martian princess literally falls into his lap. The princess is running from a forced marriage to an evil blue ray powered overlord and wants John to help lead her people to victory. Meanwhile, the very aliens responsible for John’s trip to Mars are pulling the strings behind the scenes to steer the future of the planet in their desired direction. Confused yet? Try it in 3D.

So we’ve got several story lines going on at once here…

  1. The 4 armed, green Tharks’ leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), looks to lead his horde to victory against rival hordes, with the help of John Carter, but signs of mercy in his heart (hearts?) may be his undoing.
  2. The Martian princess Dejah Thoris (who is also a scientist and very competent warrior…which is of course the triple threat on Mars) seeks to harness the mysterious blue wave to empower her people against red caped marauders and their amorous leader who would marry her, if she doesn’t behead him first.
  3. Failing that, Dejah would recruit John Carter to her cause…or unravel the alien powers he possesses to empower her people…or utilize his alien technology to empower her people…or all three. She’s easy. Not like that.
  4. Would be world conqueror Sab Than wants to conquer Mars, natch’ …with the help of an alien being (Mark Strong as Matai Shang) who has his own agenda. Getting hitched to Dejah is part of that plan, and a bonus, to be sure. She has fantastic Martian cleavage.
  5. The aliens seem to want Sab to gain control of the planet, but remark that any Martian with a brain, hands to work and the will to crush their enemies under his boot heel will do…so..there’s that. They aren’t the nicest of folks and they have all the time in the world to get what they want.
  6. Meanwhile, John Carter doesn’t want a part in any of it. Like any good broody hero, he has a dark past filled with love and loss. Now all he seems good for is bearing his chest and glistening in the mid day sun…OH..and JUMPING!

This parade of tired scifi soap opera themes made me long for a viewing of Flash Gordon, where the aliens may look cheesy but you get to have FUN!! Couldn’t we have some FUN in this Disney film? Two plus hours of scowling and grunting and characters pleading with other characters to do..something. Any time we leave the green skinned Tharks behind, you’ll beg for their return as you quickly realize they provide the only moments of levity, action or emotional weight in this dreary, over complicated, would-be epic.

Another problem I had with John Carter is more the fault of being exposed to subject matter like this all my life. In truth, John Carter of Mars is a story that came before them all, but therein lies the catch. After countless forms of media have borrowed from the source material, you can be sure you’ve seen it all already. Sure, we are now getting it in the highest definition possible, but when the 3D is nothing to shout about and the writing is headache inducing, all we have to fall back on is lovely costuming, excellent scenery and air ships ripped right from Final Fantasy. The more I talk about this film, the more it sounds like Tron: Legacy doesn’t it? Perhaps I am making too many excuses for the film’s shoddy execution. After all, Lord of the Rings had just as much dust piled atop its legendary pages when it came to the big screen and yet I loved all three installments.

There seems to be something essential missing in John Carter. Through scenes of nearly super human battle with aliens that should be blowing my mind, oddly, I find what is lost is humanity. I feel no connection or chemistry between John Carter and his inevitable love interest, Dejah. In fact, I feel no connection between John Carter and any creature in this film, save for the giant, eight legged Flash Dog! This seems to be the only character Carter is willing to show genuine affection toward. To make matters worse, with nothing substantial to chew on, acting performances go flat across the board. Taylor Kitsch furrows his brow for the entirety of this film. Scowling does not convey emotion for me. Lynn Collins does manage to throw a coy look now and then, but defaults to a look of stern resolution or an equally intense scowl far too often. All in my party agreed the stand out of the film was James Purefoy as Kantos Kan, who is the only character allowed to smile and even remotely goof around in a scene! As I write this, I’m not even 100% sure I’m naming the right character, as I swear he was just as stone faced and/or scowly as everyone else in the rest of the film. Point of fact, we counted only 2..maybe three small jokes in the entirety of the film, one of which is used to the point of no longer being funny. This is a film in dire need of an Indiana Jones. Where’s the sense of adventure??!!

John Carter is a film devoid of happiness. It’s like Disney re-making Dune without the hope of a brighter future. The Tharks war, knock each other around and even torture the weakest among them. The red caped Martians War with the blue caped Martians while the sneaky, god-like (though still mortal) uber aliens plot against them all. And then there’s John…who just wants to sit and brood with his gold. Two hours of this mess. This is certainly not a Disney movie for children and if you are the least bit tired, this tedious film isn’t for you either. You've already seen everything this film has to offer in the endless stills, clips and trailers released. Save some cash and spare yourself the pain of sitting through the rest.

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