Monday, March 26, 2012

John Carter (2012)

John Carter
Dir. Andrew Stanton

3 out of 5

The exploits of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' other famous action hero are exhaustively realized in John Carter, a cinematic swashbuckler swollen by a planet-sized mythology and a production budget to match. Taylor Kitsch portrays the titular outcast, a Confederate veteran who gets his ass to Mars via a portal hidden in the remote American southwest. He quickly discovers that shaking the surly bonds of Earth's gravity has greatly increased his strength and leaping ability. The natives of Mars ("Barsoom" in their parlance) are highly intrigued by this reverse Superman, particularly the Tharks, a race of towering green aliens with four arms and a pair of tusks protruding menacingly from their jowls. Their sanctuary temporarily shields Kitsch from the ongoing civil war between the two factions of "red" Martians - a group of warlike nomads and a society of civilized technocrats - who all resemble humanoids with an extreme affinity for henna tattoos.

Backstories are piled upon backstories. Kitsch is reluctant to engage in another conflict, as the last one he was in destroyed his home and his family. But he's amenable to the protestations of a princess (Lynn Collins) on the losing side: a cruel warlord (Dominic West) has acquired a weapon of immense power from a wayward sorcerer (Mark Strong), and she's been told the only way to secure peace is for her to marry the murdering brute. Her instinct for self-preservation has her searching for a game-changing weapon of her own, and Kitsch just might fit the bill.

There's a lot going on in John Carter that will impress fans of visually stunning blockbusters. The film's propulsive action is very much in the spirit of old pulp serials like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and, of course, Superman. It uses a clever framing conceit - imagining "Edgar Rice Burroughs" (Daryl Sabara) as a relative of Carter who uncovers a diary of his fantastic tales - to use as a springboard for a series of terrific adventures. Yet Collins and Kitsch disrupt this momentum by backtracking endlessly across Mars, searching for morsels of plot information. Rarely does the movie build up enough steam before it has to stop and recount another portion of the Barsoom mythos. The film's tendency to over-explain is frustrating, considering that neither the characters nor the basic conflicts are terribly complex. There's just too many of them.

The source material alone is enough for John Carter to provide an upgrade on Disney's previous attempt to create a PG-13 franchise, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But it also bears a certain similarity to its disappointing predecessor, with an uninspired cast going through the motions, already resigned to being upstaged by the movie's lavish special effects. I can't say that I blame them. (The best performances probably belong to Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church as motion-captured Tharks.) But it's also accurate to say that the casting lacks imagination, wasting solid supporting actors like West and CiarĂ¡n Hinds in two-dimensional roles. I'll admit there's nothing drastically wrong with a movie like this being thin in the character department. Still, I felt a little embarrassed for Kitsch - a feverishly adored, laid-back Adonis - as he struggled to pull off dialogue full of silly sounding sci-fi jargon. He just does enough to get the job done, which is more or less all that can be said about the film itself

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