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Movie review: John Carter

Updated on March 3, 2012


Hands up all those who have heard of Tarzan? No surprise there. Now how many of you have heard of John Carter? No not that one that Noah Wyle played in ER. No, there really is another one. Both names were dreamt up by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, who started writing about both characters around 1912.

His Tarzan series of books proved popular enough to see the jungle man swinging onto the silent silver screens of the time. The loin cloth wearing hero has since become an enduring character. The same can't be said for John Carter.

Carter was to become the main protagonist in Burroughs' Barsoom series of books that began with 1912's A Princess of Mars. It followed the adventures of man from Earth on the dying planet of Mars. Although popular at the time, the fact that most of the action takes place on another world put a lot of film-makers off over the years from taking on the challenge of sending John Carter to Mars, stating that the technology wasn't up to doing the series justice.

In 2007 Disney decided to buy the rights, clearly thinking that the time was right to bring John Carter to the big screen. So confident was the House of Mouse that they were prepared to put their money where their rodent mouth is to the tune of $250,000,000. This makes John Carter one of the most expensive films ever made. And once they've finished their sums, it might even become the most expensive to date. Which begs the question: was it worth it?

There was a time when John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) may have cared about a cause, but not anymore. With his personal life in tatters, he has little time for the Confederate army. The problem is, as a former captain of said army, there are still members of it that believe he still owes something to the cause.

When he finds himself on the run from the army, and then subsequently a group of Native American Indians, Carter finds himself holed up in a cave. Although the scenario sounds bleak, the good news is that the Indians refuse to enter the cave, which also appears to shimmer with gold. But then, out of nowhere, a shifty character appears and Carter finds himself tangling with him. After a brief set two, Carter finds a silver medallion about his person.

Next thing he's aware of is waking up in the middle of a desert. As he struggles to get to his feet, he notices that he has great difficulty in walking. Not so in jumping it seems. For some reason, he can bound off into the distance with remarkable height. He's not the only one to notice this feat. He's spotted by a group of green beings who give chase and capture him. Carter doesn't understand a word of what they say, talking as they do in some weird gibberish. The reason for this, it transpires, is that they are Martians, and John Carter is currently on the planet Mars.

Sadly there's no real time to do the whole touristy, sight-seeing thing, as Carter appears to have arrived in the middle of a war. With the planet apparently dying, and its inhabitants set on destroying one another, Carter probably chose the worse possible time to visit this particular planet.

There's no denying that Disney has spent a lot of cash on this film, as a lot of it is evident from what takes place on screen. Its director Andrew Stanton, making his live-action directorial debut after such animated hits as Wall-E and Finding Nemo, embraces the lavishly large vistas at his disposal, in which he creates fairly impressive set pieces.

But the film suffers from numerous problems. Despite being based on a story written roughly a hundred years ago, the film feels like a Frankenstein's monster of a package, with its whole resembling a collection of other films over the years, all stitched together. The most obvious elements being The Planet of the Ape series to a lesser extent, and Flash Gordon to a greater extent. And then you have bits of Gladiator, Braveheart, Star Wars, Conan etc. The list really does go on. So it doesn't win any awards on the originality front.

And then there's the script. For the most part, it's almost impenetrable. It even manages to make something like Dune feel like Star Wars. When will film-makers learn that audiences really don't care about the intricate politics of other worlds? Just let us know the good from the bad and we're happy.

One thing it does score points on is the fact that the alien race – the actual green Martians that is – are not only an interesting design (certainly more appealing than Avatar's Smurfs), but also have agreeable personalities. Which is more than can be said for their human counterparts.

Kitsch may well look the part, but certainly doesn't act it. In places the film cries out for its hero to be a cross between Indiana Jones and Han Solo; it wants him to know that he is in a dangerous situation, but whatever the world throws at him, he can take it on the chin with an amusing quip. Unfortunately this John Carter has had a personality lobotomy. And although he's surrounded by some well-trained British thesps (Dominic West, Ciaràn Hinds, James Purefoy and rent-a-baddie Mark Strong), their poor dialogue does enough to embarrass them all.

And yet despite its many faults, there's a really good film trying to get out. It's pretensions for being epic in any other way than scale is certainly lofty, but at least it tries its best to entertain. Yes a little too hard, including a bum-numbing two hour plus duration. But there are indications throughout that it had great potential. So in that sense it's understandable that Disney were willing to throw the big bucks at it. A decision they appear to be regretting it seems.

Before the film's release, Disney tested the public's reaction towards the film's impending release. The results weren't good. The problem is partly down to the title itself. It's difficult for any audience to get excited about a film that just has a man's name in it. Sure, Billy Elliot had the same thing but a) it didn't cost $250,000,000 to make, and b) it featured a young boy dancing with wild abandon, which a lot of audiences liked the look of. But when you add a trailer that has something to do with Mars, and involves warring Martians, oh and a bit of jumping thrown in for good measure, it's difficult to see its appeal to anyone other than a limited geeky audience. And let's face it, even if they got that voice-over guy to announce 'from the man who brought you Tarzan' in the trailer, it's still unlikely to get them queuing around the block.

The fact is this film is bound to lose money. A lot of money. And in a way, despite its best intentions, it deserves to. At some point, someone in the creative process should have stood up and asked the question: does this make any sense on any level? If that was the case, the answer would have resulted in the Disney cheque book remaining firmly shut.

But common sense did not prevail. Stupid mouse.

John Carter is destined to become a cinematic curiosity, possibly known for being one of the biggest flops – if not the biggest – of all time. It may not necessarily deserve that ominous title, but it just doesn't do enough right to avoid the tag completely. One thing's for sure, don't expect a sequel any time soon.

3 booms

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    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      I didn't even realize this was out yet. There's not much buzz about it. I think a John Carter movie could be a hit if well done. I hope this one is well done. I plan to go see it. I hope its good.

      Rob