THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The original title of John Carter had the words of Mars attached to it. It was shorted – allegedly – because Disney executives thought women wouldn't go see a movie with the word “Mars” in the title. I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly is indicative of what's wrong with the film; the same generic feeling that pervades the title also pervades everything else.
Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) stars as the title character, a Civil War veteran who inexplicably finds himself relocated to Mars against his will. Once there, he gets stuck in the middle of a conflict between the planet's warring factions, which include a race of green multi-armed beings known as Tharks. Carter really wants to get home, but he's compelled to help a beautiful princess named Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins). She is being forced into an arranged marriage with the nefarious Sab Than (Dominic West), who plans to use the marriage to gain further control of the planet and its resources. He's also threatening to wipe out her people if she doesn't pledge herself to him. While acting as protector to the princess, Carter comes to have a personal stake in the battles unfolding before him.
There's certainly a lot of promise in John Carter. It's based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' “A Princess of Mars.” The man knew a thing or twelve about great storytelling. The screenplay for this movie adaptation is a bit of a mess, though. Nothing is given much of a proper introduction. The Tharks, the villain, and the reasons for the war on Mars are sketched only in very general terms. For that reason, none of them are particularly compelling. We never feel that anything is at stake in the war, and Sab Than is little more than a stereotypical sneering villain. It may not be an entirely fair comparison, but when you look at something like Avatar, everything clicks, which is why it's so great. The world generated becomes real to us. We sense the things that are at stake. The bad guy and the minor characters seem present for a reason; they keep the plot moving and make the hero more heroic. Because pretty much everything in John Carter is presented lackadaisically, the film fails to generate the type of momentum that makes for a good sci-fi adventure. Considering it was directed by Andrew Stanton, whose Finding Nemo and Wall-E were models of tight storytelling, that's a real surprise.
The movie also has a bit of an identity problem. It can't quite figure out if it wants to be a serious movie or a cartoonish one. Certain scenes undoubtedly deliver spectacle, with interesting visual effects and tightly-staged action. Others rely on silly humor and an almost tongue-in-cheek approach. (At times, I felt like I was watching a modern day version of that 80s Flash Gordon picture.) The inconsistency of tone is another way John Carter's momentum is compromised.
There is one good thing I'll say about this movie: more people will know who Lynn Collins is after it. The actress, who also starred in the brilliant but underseen thriller Uncertainty, gives the film's liveliest, most effective performance. Whereas the other actors seem unsure as to whether they're supposed to play it straight or comical (and therefore vary back and forth), Collins finds the right middle-ground tone. No matter what's going on around her, she's effective.
I found some of the action scenes to be mildly fun, and the special effects are generally pretty cool. It isn't that John Carter is bad, it's just really mediocre. And mediocrity is deadly in this genre. There have been plenty of sci-fi flicks about humans traveling to alien worlds and finding amazing adventures. The bar has been set high in that regard. John Carter offers nothing new, just watered-down versions of things we've seen and liked in other films.
( out of four)
Note: John Carter is being shown in both 2-D and 3-D formats. In keeping with my general policy of avoiding post-conversions, I opted for 2-D. I saw absolutely nothing on screen that would lead me to believe it would benefit from 3-D.
John Carter is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.
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