Movie Review: John Carter (2012)

Disney Pictures
Runtime: 132 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willen Dafoe
Action | Adventure | Sci-fi

You’d swear that repeating an average guy’s name enough times with enough gusto would make an amazing character in an amazing movie, or at least some so thought. The name “John Carter” is repeated quite often in this movie about a guy in search for gold, but who finds the fortune of the planet of Mars instead. The director of WALL-E (2008) and Finding Nemo (2003) is responsible for bringing to us John Carter, a film inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novel series which debuted in 1912.

In its movie form, we learned that it will have a wee bit of a hard time finding its ideal audience. Although despite disappointing box office records, we shouldn't give up hope yet.

“Carter” (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran, who, in 1868, refuses to join the army in Arizona to help fight off Apaches. He is thrown in jail. When he escapes and subsequently flees an Indian attack by hiding in a cave, he discovers a portal to another world. He has no way of knowing where he is in this new place until just after he finds the Tharks, a 12-foot-tall, green-skinned, four-armed tribe of humanoid beasts who kidnap him (known to them only as “Virginia”). He escapes and runs into “Princess Dejah Thoris” (Lynn Collins) who informs him he is on Mars and that she needs his help to fight off enemies that would destroy her kingdom.

But Carter is a man who lives and fights only for himself, and yet upon learning of the great role he can play in saving several kingdoms from an unrelentingly fiendish race seeking domination of the red planet, his selfishness is put to the test. Having fought side-by-side with several races who face losing their world to an opportunistic alien species bent on capitalizing on destruction to seize the planet, Carter himself cannot ignore the fact that he stepped out of one world and into another one with a literal spring in his step. You don’t just walk away from something like that!

Due to the lower gravity on Mars, Carter can jump for many yards, which gives him two awesome legs up towards being seen as a true super hero. All the Kingdoms of Mars, like the planet itself, are dying at this point in time, but our focus is evidently at some point in the planet’s past just after the oceans evaporated, but before all the oxygen in the atmosphere dissipated. The settings of the movie – though smeared with a royal disregard for what we know about Mars’ history – has enough awe-inspiring sci-fi to make us want to watch it despite the shortcomings.

Pictorially reminiscent of what we saw in Avatar, this action/sci-fi piece is honestly not as forgettable as it may appear. It forces us to care about it over its hefty runtime of 132 minutes. In that time, we have few complaints with the makeup or special affects, and only a few with the costumes—but mainly with these exaggerated jumps from rock to rock and tower to tower that get more exaggerated.

The plot is well spread out – actually, a bit too much so – where we are given details of a story that eventually grows on us. By the time we reach the ending, we care a lot more than we did until an entire segment of what could have been a sequel is squished into less than five minutes, giving us a rather eye-rolling resolution. Dare I say this movie could have had a sequel? Yes, this is, crazily enough, one of those places where a cliffhanger ending, followed by a sequel, could have worked.

There may not be any outstanding performances here, but what we are given works well enough. It’s not going to take home any awards, but a modicum of entertainment value was achieved in this stout-budgeted Disney movie that will maintain and hold more value as a generally family-friendly film than it presently has in the eyes of most critics. It’s less than incredible, but more than a waste of time and might continue to get attention in times to come.

The love-to-hate aspect of this film is that it has been heralded as a flop by some influential sources, but what won’t sit well with those who say so is that this is a very polarizing film. It divides critics evenly and the reason for this is that while being void of humor and with costumes that for sure overdo things, it skirts the line of cheesy, but never quite crosses it. The only things we can find fault with are the same things found in many struggling sci-fis, like barbarian-ish body armor with a well-abbed, shirtless man underneath and a beautiful alien princess who happens to look awfully human, and villains with very corny silver robes. And we could go on, with cute and loyal sidekick pets and other silly little components that have become expected.

But it’s very easy to pick apart stuff like that because it means disqualifying a movie by not having to weigh it for what it offers in its story. What we have as it stands is a creative escape from reality in another “life on Mars” movie that fascinates – if for no other reason, by its subject matter – but one that, for some audiences, will be noticed as more than a flaunted piece of shiny sci-fi grill.

In fact, the film’s restraint in not giving us techno-gadget after techno-gadget is commendable, as it never relies on anything but its story and the drama thereof to draw us in. How well it does so will depend on the individual viewer in this case.