Movie #43: John Carter

Hearing that there’s going to be a big-budget sci-fi-fantasy movie made, gets me pretty excited. But when the movie turns out to get bad reviews, I get a bit nervous to watch the movie for fear of how they’ve botched something that could have been really good. I was going to save John Carter for the end of my movie marathon for just that reason, but since I was able to rent it cheaply (Yay, Redbox!), I decided to give it a try sooner. Sadly, things turned out as I was afraid they might. This movie was based on a pulp sci-fi story by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s the story of a former U.S. Civil War soldier named John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of the TV series Friday Night Lights) who finds himself waking up on Mars, or “Barsoom” as the locals call it. (Yes, apparently there are locals on Mars.) At first, John is discovered by a clan of very tall, green-skinned, six-limbed Martians called “Tharks”. They feed him some magic liquid that allows him to communicate with Martians (yes, it’s that convenient). Soon, they all witness a mid-air fire-fight between two flying ships. John uses his super-leaping (yes, the relatively lower gravity of Mars gives him super abilities) to rescue a falling human-looking princess and we’re off on a story that is relatively simple, yet extremely confusing. I usually love “world building” movies, where a world is created on screen with creatures, technology, cultures, political factions, religious beliefs and rituals, etc. that are all newly-imagined. Between the giant salamander-dog, the solar-powered flying vehicles, the Martian civil war, the mysteriously powerful shape-shifting men, and the religion that worships a goddess from “The Time of Oceans”, this story had the potential for so much world-building, and yet it felt more like it was all just thrown together like so much “leftovers casserole”. Every time someone would do something, make a choice, make a speech, I would scratch my head and think, “Huh? Why would he do this?” “What does that mean?” “Why are there people that look human on Mars?” and there’d be no answers. There was probably too much original source material to choose from to fit in the timespan of this movie (which was based on the first of over ten “Barsoom” books by Burroughs). The result is the waste of what I presume was a wonderfully-interesting imaginary world. On top of that, the plot was pretty cliche. An outsider arrives just in time to shake things up and get everyone to help him defeat the bad guys. In particular, there are a many comparisons that can be drawn between this movie and James Cameron’s Avatar, but sadly this movie pales by the comparison. The acting was mediocre, and the contrived contentious romance between John and princess Dejah Thoris didn’t help (What is this, a rom-com?). On the other hand, the part that wasn’t bad were the visuals. The Martian scenery of endless deserts and weather-worn sandstone formations was spectacular (especially when our heroes start travelling down the legendary River Iss). The CGI creatures, especially the Tharks, look really good, and their facial expressions are very life-like. Despite the oddness of the culture of the Red (i.e. human-looking) Martians (who all seem to dress like scantily-clad Romans), the style of their technology looks pretty interesting: a bit like 1920s Art Nouveau sent back from the future. Sadly, the good looks of the film only make it more obvious that so much potential for a great new movie franchise has been lost. Let’s hope that some day in the future someone will have the skills to make a good “Barsoom” movie (3.5 out of 5).

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