Review By: Gordon Sm
Those who found AVATAR too derivative a couple of years back took to calling it DANCES WITH ALIENS – that designation is actually an even closer fit to JOHN CARTER, a similar giant-budget stranger-in-a-strange-land epic. Like DANCES WITH WOLVES, it also concerns a rebellious Civil War vet who winds up in an alien environment wherein he “goes native”, becomes a hero of another civil war between the locals, and romances a beautiful local involved in the fray (see also THE LAST SAMURAI). Irony alert – JOHN CARTER’S pedigree not only predates AVATAR, by nearly a century, but was no doubt one of its conceptual ancestors.
Disney’s attempt to start another PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN-style franchise – monster budgets with monster returns – is based on the pulp romantic fantasy/early sci-fi/adventure novels of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs (who appears as a character in the film). JOHN CARTER is based on the first story in this series, “A Princess of Mars”, originally published in 1912 (!), and proposed film adaptations have been planned as early as 1931 (odd that it was never adapted as a FLASH GORDON-type serial in the ’30s or ’40s). The fact that the tales are now in the public domain allowed for a cheapie direct-to-video 2009 version of “Princess” starring, I kid you not, Traci Lords.
Taylor Kitsch (more pecs than charisma) of TV’s “Friday Night Lights” is the title character, who upon discovering a cave of gold in 1868 Arizona gets transported to a sandswept Mars (or “Barsoom”, as the locals call it) where, thanks to the lighter gravity, he can jump hundreds of feet, and four-armed, twelve-foot arachnid green folks are at war with the red-skinned humanoids (not as in Native Americans, although the film seems to set up a comparison that’s never followed up, sadly). Carter escapes the greens and becomes protector of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins of X-MEN: WOLVERINE), the Princess of Helium. Along the way are Martian flying machines, a gladiator duel with a giant “white ape”, and, of course, vast battle scenes.
JOHN CARTER cost a reported $250 million to make, and has been underperformng, resulting in instant mega-flop forecasts by the usual industry watchdogs (the same was said initially about PIRATES and TITANIC), which bodes ill for the intended series.
Director/coscripter Andrew Stanton, making a competent live-action (plus tons of CGI) debut, doesn’t hit the same high-water mark as fellow animator Brad Bird’s recent switch to live with MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, and JOHN CARTER never quite achieves the since of wonder that AVATAR did in its best moments. The plethora of characters, locations, details and backstories gets hard to follow and occasionally confusing (so did AVATAR), and while Kitsch and Collins are not devoid of chemistry, they don’t exactly smolder. It doesn’t help that Disney’s had a hard time figuring out how to market this really-old school brand of romantic fantasy to anyone beyond the hard-core devotees, and actually changed the announced title from JOHN CARTER OF MARS in an apparent attempt to attract a larger female audience (..OF MARS remains the end credit title).
Simply put it, it ain’t great – but it ain’t terrible, either. I had a reasonably good time watching JOHN CARTER. Its heart and head are in the right place, the action is satisfying, and it doesn’t sink into camp or self-parody (except for a cartoonish moment featuring JC hacking his way completely through a giant critter and emerging covered in blue gore). The visuals, of a LAWRENCE OF ARABIA-looking Martian landscape with retro costumes and warcraft, harken nicely to the classic pulp fantasy illustrations of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. The effects work is top-notch, the 3-D is modest – you probably wouldn’t miss much seeing it in 2-D (and you might avoid a headache). Willem Dafoe gives a most engaging vocal performance (beneath the CGI) as the insectoid leader Tars Tarkis; Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds and Mark Strong are all good in support (green or red).
There’s currently a Facebook campaign to convince Disney not to write JOHN CARTER off, and proceed with the sequel – I hope they do, provided they learned anything from the increasingly over-the-top, under-coherent PIRATES sequels. Count me in.