John Carter (2012) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : A big old-fashioned fantasy on Mars

I enjoyed “John Carter” to some degrees. I liked its fantasy world on Mars, and I appreciated how it presented its world with an old-fashioned pulpy style on the big screen, and I’d like to see and know more about it. I have some reservation about recommending it to you due to several notable flaws, but maybe we should at least admire how the people behind the film maintain that innocent style prevalent in those pulp novels during the 20th century while making it into a standard blockbuster action film.

The movie is based on the first book of the fantasy series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. The people around that time were less knowledgeable about the space than us, and they actually thought there were life forms in Mars(Some astronomers like Percival Lowell even believed that there were canals on its surface). Along with H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds”, Burroughs’ novel was one of the stories inspired by such imagination which looks now quite preposterous to us after the Viking program and other space programs gave us lots of information about Mars.

Anyway, it cannot be denied that Burroughs’ novels have influenced the other works in the realm of SF and fantasy since its publication. I am not familiar with the novel, but, while watching the movie, I recognized many familiar elements I saw from the other science fiction novels and films. As a matter of fact, I even recalled Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”(1987) during its climax sequence coupled with a big wedding scene at the grand hall.

The story itself is also the one we have seen or heard about many times before. John Carter(Taylor Kitsch), a former confederate soldier looking for a hidden gold mine after the Civil War, comes across a mysterious cave which transmits him Mars which is called Barsoom by its residents. While there is not much explanation about the purpose or mechanism of this cave(that’s fine with me), I have to point out that the movie overlooks one interesting existential question when Carter learns about how he was sent to Barsoom, but this is not a hard SF from the start.

Not so long after he puts his feet on the ground of Barsoom for the first time, Carter is captured by the Tharks, one of the four Martian tribes. He later gets involved in the on-going conflict between Helium and Zodang, and that is how he meets Dejah Thoris(Lynn Collins), the princess of Helium who is being forced to marry Sab Tahn(Dominic West), the ambitious king of Zodanga, for saving her people. No matter how many times Carter says he won’t fight for anyone or any cause, we all know that he will eventually exercise his newly gained power spectacularly and gets the lady in the end.

While following a rather predictable plot and going through many action scenes, I observed the world on the screen with curiosity. Barsoom looks alien to Carter at first, but he quickly adapts to the new environment. After all, it is not that different from the Wild West geographically, and, above all, the atmosphere of Mars is oxygenic enough for him to breathe. But he is still a stranger in the strange world; there are alien creatures, including Tharks, four-armed humanoid aliens with the two big tusks on the both sides of their chin(I wonder whether they can kiss each other like we do), and the gravity is lower(Carter can jump and punch more powerfully on this planet because of that – but I needed some time to accept it), and they have two moons on the sky(never mind the scientific fact that Phobos and Deimos are actually as small as asteroids).

The director Andrew Stanton, the director of great Pixar animations “Finding Nemo”(2003) and “Wall-E”(2008), makes a competent debut as the movie director with this film. Its $250 million budget is spent well for creating a believable fantasy world with lots of things to draw my attention. The landscape scenes in Barsoom are impressive with lots of care behind them, and the civilizations on this planet are amusing to watch; even though they have guns and flying vehicles, their societies seem to be stuck in the ancient culture of the Earth. In fact, they fight with swords and lances during the climax scene. When your opponents have guns, that’s quite a disadvantage, isn’t it?

Compared to its background, what happens in this interesting world is less fascinating. The story is too weak to support its goodies, and the characters are so thin that they can change their minds and attitudes whenever it is necessary for the plot. I know that Burroughs’ novel is not a great literature work, but there are several moments I found pretty cheesy and dated, though other people may find them charming. In addition, although the novel came first long before “Star Wars”(1977) and “Avatar”(2009) arrived, I could not help but compare the movie to these films and it looks pale compared to them. I do not deny that its action sequences are well-made and exciting, but they try a little too hard; the story nearly loses its way at times while surrounded by these big actions during its second half, and I got tired, though maybe it was due to more than 24 hours of the work at my lab before watching the movie.

Some of the actors in the film manage to leave impression in varying degree while filling their roles. While Taylor Kitsch is fairly adequate as the title role, Lynn Collins is beautiful and attractive as a princess of Mars. There are recognizable actors like Willem Defoe, Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, Dominic West, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, and Bryan Cranston in the credit, but you might find that Woola, a Martian dog whose face is a puppy dog version of Java the Hutt, is the most memorable supporting actor in the film. It looks not so cute at first, it surely has some kind of likeableness growing on me.

Though I am not satisfied with it, “John Carter” is not as bad as some claimed, and I got the entertainment along with some amusement worthy of a ticket price. Though I doubt whether there will be a sequel as its last scene suggests, I think I will probably be able to enjoy it as much as this one if they make it. Maybe at that time, I may be served with the things more interesting than CGI actions.

Sidenote: I watched it in 2D – again, there is no problem with that.

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1 Response to John Carter (2012) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : A big old-fashioned fantasy on Mars

  1. S M Rana says:

    Since I am not seeing it I read the review and would have found it more alluring had it been a state of the art Mars rather than vintage Burroughs or Wells. Can you name any recent good SF beyond those two Spielberg films around 2000? (one about the pickled prescient humans and another was mostly under water). You are an authentic member of specie “reviewer” since you relish and cherish the good, bad and ugly among movies. I am but an ex-cinephile.

    SC: “Super 8″(2011) is “Spielberg light”, but it’s a good one.

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