“John Carter,” the latest Disney produced fantasy adventure, is a film epic on every level. Not just because of its massive size (actors, costumes, pounds of makeup, sets, special effects, use of CGI, etc.) and not just because of its massive budget ($250 million!) but because of its massive amount of creativity and ideas. To those who watched the awful, awful trailers and thought “John Carter” looked like “Prince of Persia” with mythical creatures, I say think again.
It’s big, sometimes messy, loud and full of recognizable actors in funny makeup and outfits, but it’s damned entertaining and above all intelligent. There’s never a point where it looked like the director, Andrew Stanton, and screenwriters (Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon) ran out of ideas and resorted to mindless action. And I should hope not, considering “John Carter” is based on a 12-volume book by Andrew Rice Burrows.
Much like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings,” the film has so much going on, you could write a textbook and teach a college course on the “John Carter” mythology. So many diverse races of creatures, so much history and folklore to memorize. Not to mention a number of ridiculous sounding names: Jeddak of Helium, Kantos Kan, and Thark to name a few. And this is only based on the first volume of the series.
There is a “but” coming, unfortunately. While “John Carter” is extremely dense it’s not exactly fresh in the eyes of today’s movie-going audience. I don’t just mean its plot and character conventions (the chosen one, the power hungry villain, the even eviler entity pulling the strings, the damsel in distress, the ally) but also its cartoonish visual style and direction. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Burrows wrote the books back in 1912, before “Star Wars” or “2001” or other influential Sci-Fi movies and series. Viewers who have grown up on those movies may take one look at “John Carter” and write it off as cliché ridden.
As far as plot goes I’ll give you the basics, the rest you can learn in John Carter Mythology 101. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a tough, good-looking loner living in the time of the American Civil War. One day while riding into an Arizona settlement he comes upon a cave of gold where he is transported to planet Mars (Barsoom as the inhabitants call it), where he’s put in the middle of another civil war, between guys who wear blue and guys who wear red. The damsel in distress, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is on the red side while the power hungry villain, Sab Than (Dominic West) is on the blue. John Carter is the chosen one, because he can jump high and far through the air, since there’s little gravity on Mars and his Earth bones are lighter.
As with all Sci-Fi and fantasy epics there are flaws, mainly with the script and the acting. Like “Star Wars,” some of the best and liveliest performances in “John Carter” come from supporting players like Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, John Carter’s main ally, or Mark Strong as Matai Shang, a holy figure who serves as the evil puppet master. Kitsch’s lead performance on the other hand--in regards to the movie as a whole—isn’t anything to thank the gods of Barsoom over. I’m sure Kitsch is a capable actor but this movie gives him nothing to do except look good and say little and Collins’s performance is wooden most of the time, especially when she has to say the movie’s silly dialog: “Will you stay and fight for me? Will you find a path soon?” George Lucas, you’re not the only one who can write bad dialog.
Despite that, the movie still looks great. Daniel Mindel’s cinematography is sparkling clean, and the CGI is rich and detailed, although it would be better without the superfluous use of 3D. And Stanton (a veteran director at Pixar) handles the shear size of the project rather well, considering it’s a difficult task to keep an epic coherent.
So OK, everything can get a little overwhelming at times, especially during the end battle sequences, and Stanton and his writers do have to shove an awful lot into one movie. “John Carter” is two hours and seventeen minutes but there’s enough here to fit a three or four-hour film.
Which is all the more reason why “John Carter” needs a sequel. But because the movie won’t feel like anything new to today’s audiences, it’s questionable whether it will earn back its huge budget, so a sequel might be a long time coming. Hopefully, enough young children will drag their parents to it, because while it may look like another dumb CGI action flick, “John Carter” is anything but brainless. I imagine the final exam would be killer.