Review: JOHN CARTER (2012) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Review: JOHN CARTER (2012)


A century ago, famed American pulp fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs penned the Barsoom series. His extensive vision in the series has inspired many sci-fi filmmakers including Flash Gordon series, George Lucas's STAR WARS, James Cameron's AVATAR, and countless others. And now the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of the Barsoom series is finally arrived. Judging by the outlook of the sci-fi epic titled as JOHN CARTER, this project is simply a can't-miss cinematic experience. It was directed by Andrew Stanton, responsible for some of the most beloved Pixar's animated features ever made including 1998's A BUG'S LIFE, 2003's FINDING NEMO and 2008's WALL-E. As a matter of fact, he also had a hand in the script alongside with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who was responsible for the screenplay of 2004's SPIDER-MAN 2. Blessed with a lavish budget of $250 million, it's natural that many will predict JOHN CARTER is set to be one of the most successful sci-fi epics ever made. Unfortunately, what you seen in the screen instead, is all smoke-and-mirrors.

JOHN CARTER preludes at the planet of Barsoom -- commonly known as Mars -- where two long-feuding tribes between the power-hungry Zodangans, lead by Sab Than (Dominic West) and the Heliumites, lead by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), have been waging war against each other. Then the arrival of god-like Therns, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) plans to grant Sab Than a powerful weapon so he can defeat the Heliumites with little trouble and particularly wants him to rule the planet under his supervision.

Cut to the year 1881 at New York, where we are introduced to John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of the Civil War whose wife and child have been killed. He is now a globe-trotting treasure hunter, who is subsequently getting himself into trouble with the U.S. military force, lead by a Civil War colonel named Powell (Bryan Cranston), who forces him to fight against the Apaches. John refuses and gradually made his dramatic escape. After ending up at a cave for hideout, he finds himself mysteriously transported to Barsoom.

Once there, he discovers that he is capable to leap unbelievably far and high into the sky because of his bone density and low gravity of the planet. He is then encounters a tribe of green-skinned Tharks, lead by a warrior named Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). While John tries to find his way home, he is eventually involved in the conflict between the Zodangans and the Heliumites. At the same time he also falls in love with a beautiful warrior-princess named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is about to engage in a forceful marriage with Sab Than, as an exchange of peace.

With the amount of plot this kind of magnitude, it's natural to expect a 132 minutes running time. But unfortunately the execution of the entire story is surprisingly heavy-handed. Given the fact that it was handled by Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon, as well as fellow Mark Andrews, you might expect they can do this better. Despite all the fantastical elements presented here, everything feels like a deja vu experience. Apparently Andrew Stanton, who also made his live-action feature debut here, seems to be so faithful with the source material until he forgets that what makes the story works a long time ago doesn't means it works in today's generation. Of course, it's easily to see why. Blame the fact that JOHN CARTER comes way too late into the big-screen adaptation. Even if Stanton has an intention to make this as a good old-fashioned "good vs. evil" sci-fi epic, he also failed to achieve that in a satisfying level of entertainment. In the world where the viewers already heavily exposed to the STAR WARS-like era and any subsequent sci-fi genre that came afterwards, JOHN CARTER is more of a leftover -- a terribly dated effort that could have some fresh tweaking to the oft-told material. It doesn't help either when the story is also unnecessary overlong and patchy in places. The mid-section is particularly a butt-numbing experience, with too many exposition-heavy dialogues explaining whatever multiple motivations happened throughout the running time.

Another huge setback is Stanton's unbelievably haphazard tone and pace of his direction. Either this kind of sci-fi material is too big for him to handle or he is simply plain clueless, he is clearly lack of visionary approach to sustain the viewers as entertaining as possible. The action here is surprisingly brief and sorely lack of urgency needed for this kind of movie. He should have learn a thing or two from like-minded filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg or James Cameron about creating sustaining excitement and fun in the sci-fi genre. Not surprisingly, all the action here are unmemorable except if you count John Carter's exciting battle against the two giant white apes in the arena (which was also heavily promoted in the trailers).

Then there's the long-winded, anticlimactic third-act which sees Stanton struggling to put a satisfying full stop. A sci-fi epic like this it should have been concluded with a rousing finale but you wouldn't find it here. If you are expecting any epic battle between John Carter against the Zodangans and the Therns, prepare to have your jaw drop with massive disappointment.

Characters-wise, Taylor Kitsch has the charming presence of a leading action role but his character here is surprisingly bland to make him iconic enough. Lynn Collins, on the other hand, is all stunning look but lack of dramatic acting range to make her worthwhile. The rest of the actors are all average at best, despite the involvement of talented cast including Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong and Thomas Haden Church who plays the opposing Thark warrior, Tal Hajus.

Despite the $250 million budget tag, the special effects and the production value of the movie are nothing to shout about.

While JOHN CARTER isn't as hugely disastrous as most critics might suggested, the movie does have its mildly entertaining moments. But considering the astounding 79 years of "development hell" dated way back in 1931 when animation director Robert Clampett approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to make an animated feature but eventually fell through, as well as subsequent directors (John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran and Jon Favreau) came and gone, this is what we get in the end? Here's hoping this is the only misstep Andrew Stanton has made in his otherwise impressive filmmaking career.

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