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John Carter
Reviewed by Ian A. Watson, © 2012

Format: Movie
By:   Andrew Stanton (director)
Genre:   Sci-fi action adventure
Review Date:   March 26, 2012
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

John Carter is a rattlingly solid action adventure, with a good ratio of action, adventure, romance, and intrigue. It tells a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end, and several characters had well-defined story arcs.

The world of Mars was well interpolated from the source material, and those changes that were made are reasonable for a movie version (that’s not rated R).

Including the lengthy Earth scenes was a wise choice. It grounded the Martian adventure so the contrasts seemed more spectacular and it introduced the Carter of the movie well.

It was also wise to open with a Show The Baddie scene, so we didn’t get too fidgety during the lovingly-recreated Victoriana.

There was good attention to detail in scenery and designs, such as the Martian script on Carter’s weapons, and the insect design of the fliers. The organic CGI for the aliens was merely adequate by contemporary standards, but did not often detract from the story.

The only real let-down is Carter’s pet, who seemed to have slipped in from a Ghostbusters cartoon.

Lynn Collins (Dejah) did well with fairly limited lines and brought a good range of emotions to the scenes. Even when she was in the background, she carried on and acted out her own personal storyline.

Wllem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, the voice actors for Tars and Sola, helped sell the virtual characters. James Purefoy as Kantos Kan stole the Carter rescue/ hostage scene.

Not as good parts

The very first thing that happens when the movie opens is a voice-over infodump. This is a mistake.

Unless you’re adapting something so classily written that it allows you to have Richard Burton saying "Nobody believed in the final days of the last century that the human race was being observed," then don’t bother.

The voice-over felt like it was written by nervous studio executives who thought their audience would be too dumb or impatient to wait for the narrative to supply the backstory naturally.

I wasn’t impressed with Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter. He looked the part but didn’t always act the part. I quite liked him at the start; but when he shaved off his beard he shaved off his personality, too.

Thereafter he struggled to stand out in sequences where he competed with strong performances, stunning backdrops, and all the action CGI could conjure.

I couldn’t help wondering why this guy played Cater, since James Purefoy was available.

The key special effect in the movie was jumping. Carter jumps. It’s the whole central thing about why he’s special on Mars. I wasn’t sold on the wirework or whatever else they used to simulate his spectacular leaps. It was slightly off, with odd centers of balance, or maybe the muscle movements were wrong. Such a central premise needs to be spot on to sell the suspension of disbelief. I did not believe a man could jump.

The action sequences were fairly generic. The best was the fight where Carter meets Dejah, which had visually interesting ship-to-ship swashbuckling. A lot more could have been done with the combat scenes. This movie did not have Star Wars-level fight choreography; it was more like the 2011 Conan the Barbarian movie. But good fight scenes have their own internal narrative and logic, a flow that has its own story beats, and a wit about how the combatants interact with each other and their environment.

The Not-Their-Fault Stuff

This is a movie based upon works that have been strip-mined for movie sequences for a century.

It’s really not this film’s fault that we’ve seen other movies with our hero fighting in the arena and winning against impossible odds before challenging the ruler who sent him there, such as Gladiator.

Nor is it John Carter's fault that we’ve seen rebel princesses flee the villain and be shot down, or a heroic stranger rise to lead a native people to victory, or mysterious techno-wizards plotting against humanity using stargates, or any of the other bits of Edgar Rice Burroughs' worlds that have been cannibalized and recycled.

But they have been, and it matters. I couldn’t help drawing comparisons. At the movie’s final major action sequence, when Carter drives his flyer through the dome to stop Dejah’s wedding to the villain, I really expected Kantos Kan to cry out, "Carter’s alive!” and the Queen to chorus in with " John! Ah- aaaah!"< The film suffers because what should have been fresh and groundbreaking comes in a generic and cliche.

John Carter is a good film that could and should have been better. It will age well and reward a DVD viewing. It's a good introduction to the John Carter books, and a reasonable and sympathetic adaptation of the source material.

In terms of enjoyment against recent movies I enjoyed it as much as Cowboys and Aliens, more than Green Lantern and Ghost Rider 2, less than Captain America and Thor. My kids, 14 and 18, were both entertained, and sufficiently provoked to discuss the film’s merits on the trip home. My son felt the villains needed more depth but that the adventure itself was satisfying. He may well take a look at the original novels.

My daughter was impressed with Dejah but more concerned with some plot holes, such as why Carter threw his medallion away when his wife would likely want it to crack how to do that Ninth Ray stuff.

It’s worth seeing. I was pleasantly surprised by a movie that exceeded my expectations and took me to another world for a fun ride.

Read more from Ian A. Watson right here.

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