Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter - Movie Review

John Carter
rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)

Moral Rating: 

In the world of science fiction there is rarely such thing as an original idea. Even Avatar, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily influenced by pop sci-fi culture from decades before their conception. This is why films such as Christopher Nolan's Inception are so highly regarded in cinema, because it is truly something that has never been seen before. So what exactly were James Cameron, George Lucas and their contemporaries drawing from in the creation of their elaborate universes set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"? The answer for many of these directors is Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" series of pulp science-fiction novels. While these may seem rather cheesy to us today, these novels have helped to shape the imagination of many a film pioneer.

Disney's "John Carter" is based off of the first book in Burrough's series, "A Princess of Mars" (which incidentally was written exactly 100 years ago in 1912). The story begins with Civil War veteran John Carter as he hunts for a hidden cave of gold in the Arizona mountains. During a run in with Apache Indians he is accidentally transported to Mars, or "Barsoom" as the natives call it, when he comes across mysterious otherworldly technology in this cave. While on Barsoom he is captured by the indigenous alien species called Tharks and due to the gravitational difference, discovers his incredible advantage in running, jumping and overall strength- quickly gaining respect from their leader Tars Tarkas. When the Tharks capture the rogue princess Dejah Thoris during a battle, Carter becomes sucked into the conflict between Dejah's city of Helium and the ravaging machine city of Zodanga, led by the powerful Tardos Mos, who intends to marry Dejah and take over all of Barsoom. The only hope for Barsoom lies in the aid of John Carter, who joins with the princess's cause and unifies the Tharks and Helium to stand against the forces of Zodanga.

As confusing as this story might seem, it is actually surprisingly easy to follow on screen thanks to director Andrew Stanton's impeccable directing. He balances story and character development very well, telling the audience no more than we need to know at a given time, and allowing us to learn the characters and situations as we go. The plot of "John Carter" is indeed a beast to handle! While the story itself isn't anything new, it always adds an added dimension when you have names of people and places that tend to bleed together in their ridiculousness. Despite chuckle-worthy names, the actors behind these characters deserve recognition. Taylor Kitsch (from Friday Night Lights fame) does a fine job as titular John Carter, and Lynn Collins, while a bit forced at times, is a likable Princess Dejah. The role I thought really stood out was Willem Dafoe as Thark leader Tars Tarkas. It truly takes good acting to bring an animated character to life, and I found myself laughing out loud at things Tarkas said, and actually ENJOYING the presence of an animated character in a live action film for once. (*cough* unlike Jar Jar Binks *cough*)

The animation is one aspect of John Carter that lacked a bit. While locations and machines were incredible (Zodanga seemed like something out of a Miyazaki movie) the character animation was a bit, shall we say, cartoony? Granted, much of this work came from Pixar. HOWEVER, as I pointed out above, this really didn't matter as much due to the solid acting jobs of Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton. If character graphics detracted at all from my enjoyment of the film, then the action sequences more than made up for it. Scenes like the arena battle with a white ape and a speeder chase through the city of Zodanga especially stand out. I didn't see the film in 3D but I imagine that these scenes would have been enhanced by added depth.

The reason that I didn't give John Carter a 5 out of 5 stars rating is due to a weak script. I felt that Stanton and the actors were especially up to the task at hand, and indeed the film was a blast to watch, BUT the script felt stale and old-fashioned most of the time. Dialogue was a bit forced, wording was very "1912" and in the end unrelatable to a contemporary audience. This is the issue that many people have with "John Carter" as a movie anyway. How can you take such a dated story and make it a hit with a contemporary audence? On one hand you want to stay true to the story, but on the other hand let the dialogue flow like it would in a more modern setting.

Other highlights: Michael Giacchino's score shines in this film, as it did in "The Incredibles" and "UP". The  comedic presence of the dog-like creature called Woola certainly stole the show in many scenes. I laughed out loud at the hilarious and cute animal that takes a liking to John Carter when he is in the Thark camp.

In conclusion, "John Carter" is a fun blockbuster action flick. While not perfect, it is a wonderfully executed adaptation of a dated sci-fi novel. Even though the film faltered at the box office, I am crossing my fingers for a sequel or two from Andrew Stanton.
Let's help Disney out with this one! Go see "John Carter"!

Signing out, The REAL Bowman

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