John Carter of Mars, actually.
The H-Bomb: Because that sounds a lot better than John Carter of Earth, doesn’t it? And just who is this John Carter (Taylor Kitsch)? Well, he’s a decorated hero of the Civil War who, due to a tragedy in his past, has turned his back on his duty and his fellow man in favor of searching for a legendary cave of gold. During this search, he comes upon a strange medallion that whisks him off to… a very, very strange place.
Soon after arriving in this strange desert place, John discovers that he can now jump abnormally high, as in hundreds of feet. Unfortunately for him, before he can really enjoy his new found ability, he is attacked and captured by Tharks, a violent race of large, ugly green creatures with four arms and tusks growing out of their faces. Most of the Tharks want to feed him to the big “white apes,” but their fearless leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), wants to hold him captive because… he really likes the way John can jump.
John, erstwhile, is just confused as hell, as he really has no clue where he is or how he got there. Eventually, through the miracle of exposition, John comes to realize that he somehow transported to the planet Mars, or as the locals call it, Barsoom. If that’s not bad enough, John finds out that the planet is in the middle of a war between the city states of Zodanga, a traveling city that has been conquering all the cities on the planet, and Helium, the last city that has been able to stand up to them.
In an effort to end the war, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), the leader of Helium, offers the leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), the hand of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), in marriage. She, of course, objects to this idea, sensing it is just a ploy, and runs off to go join her fellow countrymen in battle. One of these battles happens near the Thark hideout, and while the Tharks are all placing bets on who will win, John sees Dejah in danger, and since these Martians look human, he saves her life.
They take one look at each other, and since he’s hot, and she’s hot, it’s love at first sight. So now John must utilize his mad jumping skills to help the Princess defeat Zodanga once and for all, and find a way back to Earth. But, aside from the obvious dangers, he will also have to be careful of the Thern, a shape shifting God-like race who “control things” on Mars, and who view John’s presence on the planet as a threat to the natural order of things. Or something.
Adapted from the classic novel The Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter (of Mars) has apparently spent eight decades in development and finally comes to us via Disney with a jaw dropping budget of $250 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever made. The influence of the novel has been far reaching and is quite evident in such films as Star Wars, Dune, Avatar, and even Stargate. It’s that influence that causes John Carter to seem like too little, too late, as so much of what goes on is so familiar by now.
Also, if a film is going to cost $250 million to produce, then that film had better knock me on my ass and blow me away. Sadly, this film does neither. It has all the CGI money can buy, and a pretty epic look and feel to it, but as a whole, I found it all pretty underwhelming. The battle scenes, as big as they tried to be, had little impact and just weren’t that exciting. They were aided in no way by the 3D, which added absolutely nothing to the picture. In fact, not only did the 3D not help to immerse me in the story, I found it to be distinctly flat and unimpressive.
The story often is bogged down by clunky exposition, explaining its convoluted Space Opera plot that, again, just seems old hat nowadays. Not to mention it relies too heavily on convenient contrivances throughout, such as John drinking some kind of potion that magically makes him understand the Martian language (never read the book, don’t know if that was in there or not, but either way, it’s stupid).
When we first meet John, he is selfish and off-putting, and for the longest time, we don’t know why, and the few fleeting flashbacks of his dead family just don’t cut it. I also didn’t get a clear reason why the bad guys wanted to take over every city on Mars, aside from that they’re bad guys and that’s what bad guys do. Another thing, and I know that this book was written like a bagillion years ago and is supposed to be fantasy and whatnot, but the fact that the planet Mars looks absolutely nothing like this in reality kept nagging at me throughout. The whole time I just couldn’t stop thinking, “Why the hell does Mars look so much like Utah?”
Okay, I’ve been beating up on John Carter pretty badly, so now I shall move on to one of its big positives: the cast. Kitsch has a very strong screen presence and made for a very commanding lead. He plays Carter with a sense of humor, even allowing himself to look foolish at times, which goes a long way in making him sympathetic, even when he’s being a dick, and keeps him from being just another “bland leading man.” He’s well matched by Collins, who is not only a pretty convincing ass kicker in her own right, but also spends the bulk of the movie in skimpy, Princess Leia-style bikinis. That I do appreciate.
West is deliciously slimy (if a bit campy) as the villain, and Mark Strong is downright creepy as Matai Shang, the most prominent Thern. He’s bald, evil, and scary… and that is why he is awesome. My favorite of the entire cast would have to be Dafoe, as the voice of the Thark leader. He gives this big, green ugly thing a sense of dignity and made me forget I was watching a special effect. That takes talent.
Aside from making some very solid casting choices, director/co-writer Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) also helped by injecting a healthy dose of humor into the story, when appropriate, like the ridiculous game of charades that John plays with Tars when they first meet, or the loveable dog thing that follows John everywhere he goes. Stanton also makes good use of the CGI, making creatures life like and environments eye catching (though again, the 3D did nothing to enhance it), as well as keeping the gigantic story moving at a fairly decent pace, so while I was never entirely engaged with it, I was never bored, either.
Overall, by the time John Carter (of Mars) ended, I was left with a film that I neither loved nor hated. While I found it perfectly watchable, I just wasn’t that interested in its oh-so-ambitious narrative, nor was I all that invested in what was happening. I take it this is meant to be the first of a possible franchise, but I must admit I’m not very curious to see where it goes from here. Disney sure sank a crap-ton of money into this, I just wish they ended up with something more than this utterly generic epic. Fans of the books may rate this higher, after all, they certainly did wait long enough for this movie, but I have the feeling that most will be as indifferent to it as I am.