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Review: John Carter (2012)

John Carter (2012)

Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Premise: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars. A Civil War veteran finds an amulet that transports him to the planet Mars where he is caught between warring civilizations. 

What Works: John Carter is an audio-visual spectacle and as a piece of popcorn entertainment this film is successful. In fact, it exceeds many recent comic book and fantasy films and is on par with some better ones like Avatar and Captain America. The special effects look great, the action comes steadily, and there is a healthy dose of humor throughout the film.

What Doesn’t: Although John Carter is not a bad film it is not particularly distinguished either. The Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from which John Carter is based has been the inspiration for many high profile science fiction and fantasy films and a lot of John Carter’s characters and set pieces recall other movies. Princess Dejia is very much like Princess Leia of Star Wars, the green Martians recall the Na’vi culture of Avatar, the arena fight sequence is right out of Attack of the Clones, the sword and shield battle scenes are reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, and the genre mash up of westerns and science fiction echos the television show Firefly. That becomes a problem for John Carter because a lot of this adventure has been seen before and the film plays like a greatest hits reel of science fiction tent pole releases of the past decade. The film’s lack of novelty could be overcome if it had compelling characters and an urgent sense of drama, but John Carter is not very impressive in that regard either. The title character is flat and not very interesting. Some of this may be the fault of casting. Taylor Kitsch is cast as John Carter and although the actor is a decent performer the role is so underwritten that whoever was cast was going to have to bring something extra to fill out the role, like the charisma that Johnny Depp brought to Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean or the rugged charm that Harrison Ford brought to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kitsch just doesn’t have that presence. Whatever Kitsch’s shortcomings, the film is more profoundly impacted by the character’s lack of motivation. John Carter and the audience are thrust into the middle of an alien civil war and neither he nor the viewer get a firm grasp on who these groups are or what they are fighting for. This is a common problem for epic fantasy films, which often lose sight of their characters and plot against an expansive background. The film yanks the lead character from one place to another but it is never really clear who anyone is, where they are going, or why. And because none of the basics of the story’s conflicts, settings or characters are clearly established, it is impossible for the audience to understand what is at stake, take a side, and make an investment in the story. As a result, John Carter is an emotionally hollow experience in which an anonymous lead character joins an ill-defined group of people in their unspecified cause within a computer generated environment. And when a story that is so un-compelling is told through set pieces and visuals that are already familiar from other movies, the end result is an extravagant but underwhelming film.   

Bottom Line: John Carter is fun popcorn entertainment but it is also indistinguishable from so many other science fiction and fantasy adventures. It has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster but none of the basic qualities that make for a memorable story.

Episode: #380 (March 18, 2012)