JOHN CARTER: A Tharking Bore

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
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JOHN CARTER: A Tharking Bore
Imagine 1980's "Flash Gordon" movie without the Queen soundtrack but the same storyline. Replace all the intentional cornball camp and eye-popping artifice with a serious tone and today's more-real-than-real visual effects. Swap out Max von Sydow's bald, scenery-chewing Ming for Mark Strong's bald, unmemorable Matai Shang. Then add an hour. Do all that, and you get something resembling Disney's latest venture into PG-13 action/adventure, "John Carter". [Cue Queen's "Flash" theme, bum-bum-bum-bum bum-bum-bum-bum] John! Car-ter!! Savior of... Mars!!!

Doesn't quite work, does it?
One hundred years ago, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote of the swashbuckling otherworldly adventures of an earthman that becomes a gravity-defying hero on Mars. An estimated eighty-seven Tarzan movies later, Burroughs' John Carter, the one and only Warlord of Mars, finally makes his big screen debut. Not that others haven't tried. In 1936, future Looney Tunes creator Bob Clampett attempted to bring John Carter to the screen via impressively painted animation - but the project was scraped, apparently due to concerns of it being too weird. More recently, Robert Rodriguez was unable to get his own version off the ground.

Finally, someone reached the finish line: Disney tapped Pixar luminary Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo", "Wall-E") to helm their version of Burroughs' visionary legend. Unfortunately, a hollow spirit packed within lairs of off-putting heavy-duty self-serious sci-fi baloney is the end result. (The film's idea of humor? The aliens repeatedly refer to Carter as "Virginia", mistaking his home state for his name. Yeesh.) Think Vin Diesel's "The Chronicles or Riddick" (a movie that I still don't understand how it got made), and you get the idea of the size, scope and flavor of this epic misfire.

Mired in pulpy mumbo-jumbo played far too straight-faced, Disney's sprawling "John Carter" is about as approachable as David Lynch's "Dune" adaptation, with every third word being of the made-up variety. "Tharks", "Barsoom", "Jeddak", "Zodanga" - the list goes on. If there was a shred of spirited fun lurking amid this barrage of 100 year old gobbledygook, that would make all the difference. Instead, we're left with a massively ornate, exquisitely designed CGI blast from the past shoehorned into a contemporary kinetic visual context by overly reverent screenwriting and production teams.

The unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch hits the scene playing the title character with block-of-wood uncertainty, veering back and forth from teeth-gritting man of action to wide-eyed Campbellian archetype. Like his leading man, director Stanton marks his first venture into live action filmmaking with a clear feeling of being in far, too far over his head. Perhaps if he hadn't opted to dive into the deepest end of the deepest pool for his first foray into such waters, things wouldn't have turned out quite so lousy. As it stands, "John Carter" is said to be one of the single most insanely expensive films ever made, ringing up around $250 million. But don't worry; you see at least $135 of that on screen. Unfortunately, you see it in 3D, which is a dimming and detracting filter to this would-be colorful escapism.

Reading other reviews, I see that I'm definitely on the negative end of an across-the-board critical response to this movie. Therefore, moreso than most action/effects extravaganzas, your mileage may vary. Another critic already used the headline and David Bowie reference "Lifeless on Mars" to encapsulate this, beating me to the punch, doggonit. But you get the idea.

One thing most critics are seizing upon is the performance of Lynn Collins as the scene-stealing Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris. Collins is indeed very good in her by-the-numbers modern day heroine role (as tough as the boys, but never unsexy) who is thrust into a fixed marriage plot that feels more at home a century ago than in the feminist now. Collins is very attractive, but also looking a bit tired here. She wasn't the only one - I almost nodded off myself.

It really is a shame that Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic character, a well documented influence for so much of the science fiction, fantasy and adventure we hold so dear today ("Star Wars", "Avatar", "Flash Gordon" - pretty much everything else of that ilk) finally makes it to the silver screen in this manner. Rather than standing head and shoulders above it all, "John Carter" blends into the gutter beneath; the one filled with the remains of so many failed "Star Wars"/"Avatar"/"Flash Gordon" imitations - blending the way any given green thark looks too much like all the other tharks in the film. Which begs the question, if such gutter-filling films are imitations of imitations of Burroughs' Warlord of Mars, what does that make this film? A straight reflection of Burroughs' vision, or a reflection of the reflection reflecting back? (Paging Jean Baudrillard!) In any case, it's too bad that part of that $250 million budget couldn't buy an honest to goodness Queen reunion for the soundtrack.

- Jim Tudor

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Andrew StantonMark AndrewsMichael ChabonEdgar Rice BurroughsTaylor KitschLynn CollinsSamantha MortonWillem DafoeActionAdventureSci-Fi

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GeneralErrorMarch 11, 2012 4:38 PM

My only concern going into this movie was that the director wouldn't be able to pull off the live action sequences. That's exactly what happened to a surprising degree. He directed everything as if it was a pixar cartoon. The introduction of the princess, and even the introduction of Carter (when he jumps out the window to escape that "Malcom in the Middle" guy) -those gags only would have worked in a cartoon. The CG stuff was typical pixar humor (that dog-alien), but he doesn't know what to do with real people. It always surprises me how they build such elaborate sets and props, but then they just have the actor do a couple of lame takes and call it a day (another fault with animation, made worse in live action). I really wish this movie had a better opening week though, I loved the armor designs and the feel they were going for. It is depressing to think once this fails we are doomed to more Pirates of the Caribbean, Alice and Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, etc... this movie was still more enjoyable than everything else in Hollywood.

andrewzMarch 11, 2012 6:15 PM

Those made up words that are criticized are from the books. Barsoom is the name Martians use for their planet. I last read these books over 20 years ago so while Tharks and Jeddaks sound familiar I don't recall their meaning. A good story can create its own universe with suspension of disbelief, but that doesn't seem to have happened.

The reviewer's opinions definitely reflect my reservations about attending this film. The movie appears to contain the worst aspects of blockbusters, but Disney has to have some responsibility for okaying the director.

What was the reviewer's prejudices going in? I've been fed up with blockbusters for years. I'm very disappointed that John Carter was given the treatment, but I had hoped it would be one of those rare Hollywood blockbusters that was actually enjoyable.

Jim TudorMarch 12, 2012 1:10 AM

Hi andrewz, thanks so much for reading my review and taking the time to comment. Not sure what I could list as my "prejudices" going in, although after the film I complained that I couldn't tell one thark from another (except for the one with the busted fang). So I guess that doesn't sound to sensitive to the martians. But honestly, I do have a big huge soft spot for big studio spectacle done right. (I'm the guy who loves the Star Wars prequels.) I pride myself on casting a pretty wide cinematic net in terms of what I appreciate. I go into every screening hoping the film will be good. They don't pay me here, so I generally don't bother with screenings of films that I assume will be awful. With this one, I was really, really hoping it would be something. After the first minutes, i got that feeling of dread - and it only went downhill from there.

andrewzMarch 12, 2012 8:29 AM

Thanks for the reply. I've been finding myself bored with these sci-fi fantasy blockbusters for years. In my case it tends to be a mix of CGI that dominates the movie combined with characters that are so archetypal that only Jung would enjoy seeing them, with elements of pandering to every conceivable audience. These films include "Phantom Menace", "300", and "Skyline" (not really a blockbuster, but it shares similar attributes).

I"m glad to see that you don't bother screening films you assume will be awful. I think that lends authenticity to the review.

Let's hope the next one is better.

Jim TudorMarch 13, 2012 10:30 AM

I should also clarify that just because you might not see a particular film reviewed by me, do not assume that means that I assumed it would be awful. Like anyone with a busy life, plenty of external factors play into having to miss seeing movies sometimes. Why, just this morning, I'm missing one so my wife can go hang out with a friend. I'll be with the kids at home.