FlixChatter Review: John Carter (2012)

This is one of those movies I just didn’t really care for from the first time I heard about it, and the trailer didn’t really convince me otherwise. But my hubby really wanted to see it and I must admit I became more curious after reading some positive reviews, such as this one from my pal Terrence.

Just as I enjoyed Hunger Games more having read the book, perhaps it would’ve helped me understand the film better if I had done the same here. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure novel was apparently massively popular and the story has inspired many filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. I heard some reviews that says the movie is ripping off Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Avatar, etc., when in fact, it’s really the other way around. Even the filmmakers themselves, even the creator of Superman, admitted that they were inspired by Burroughs’ work. Why they didn’t leverage that point in the film’s marketing is beyond me. This article even cited George Lucas describing described his Star Wars story as being set “in the grand tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.” 

It’s the kind of review where I have to turn to Wikipedia to make sure I get the details right. The story takes place in the late 1800. Former Civil War captain John Carter somehow ended up in a cave of gold whilst on the run from a group of Cavalry officers and Apache Indians. It’s there that he encountered a strange figure whose medallion accidentally teleported him all the way to Mars. In the intro, it’s explained that Mars (called Barsoom by the inhabitants) is not a “dead planet”, but rather a dying one inhabited by warring civilizations with great airships.

The various ethnic groups of Mars

There are the four-armed green Martians called the Tharks, a White Martian called Therns and the two Red Martians cities Helium and Zodangas whose natives are akin to the Elves in The Lord of the Rings in that they’re full of beautiful people (hello James Purefoy!), except they’ve got a natural tan. So basically John goes from one civil war on earth, to another epic one in a distant planet.

In the book, apparently John Carter is described as an immortal being. I can’t remember the movie depicting him that way but for sure he’s got some great powers due to his high bone density and the planet’s low gravity (not sure how the science works out but hey, it’s a fantasy film so certain suspension of disbelief comes with the territory). What I didn’t realize from the trailer laden with strange-looking creatures like the great white apes etc., is that John Carter has got a love story at the heart of it. John Carter meets Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a stunning but rebellious Princess of Helium who’s apparently also a scientist (take that Dr. Christmas Jones!) It’s utterly predictable that they both would fall in love, though of course they still have to banter with each other first (a la Princess Leia and Han Solo and Na’vi Princess Neytiri and Jake Sully in Avatar).

This movie was declared a major box office bomb even by Disney itself. I think having seen it now, I gather that poor marketing was largely to blame for it. Sure, the reviews weren’t stellar, but it’s not terrible either with about 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. There are far, far worse films have made way more money than this, just look at those Transformer flicks! So perhaps it’s just really poor timing that this movie came out after 50 years of similarly-themed sci-fi movies have been released, which makes it ironically derivative.

In any case, I actually quite enjoyed this film. Actor Dominic West (who played Zodangas’ leader) told BBC  that “… the story sometimes difficult to follow, but I don’t think it was boring.” I think I’d agree with him. Though there are some slow parts and the pacing could be much improved, there are a lot to appreciate here. The movie kept me engaged for the most part, and the action scenes with all the weird-looking creatures actually don’t dominate the movie the way the trailers make it out to be. The visuals are marvelous to look at, what with all the meticulously-crafted spaceships and other flying objects.The action sequences are pretty fun to watch, though very reminiscent of The Phantom Menace especially in the pod-racer scenes.

I’d guess that a lot of the $250-million budget goes to the set pieces as there isn’t any big-name actors in the movie. The world that director Andrew Stanton built are a dazzling technical achievement, but the main problem for me is the pacing, just like any piece of music relies on good rhythm. It’s too bad because the story itself is quite engaging, and no surprise there considering Stanton has written and directed Pixar’s masterpieces like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall*E.

Lastly, the cast turns out to be a pleasant surprise. I was quite harsh on Taylor Kitsch initially as I was unimpressed with his performance in Wolverine, but he actually makes for a pretty convincing lead here. He’s got the looks (and a nice, deep voice), as well as confidence to pull off a heroic role. Another Wolverine alum Lynn Collins is all right as the Princess, she’s obviously beautiful but can also be pretty bad ass in the action sequences. Both of them are not as experienced as the rest of the supporting cast but they’re more than serviceable I think.

The rest of the supporting cast are largely British except for the ubiquitous Bryan Cranston as the leader of the Cavalry that pursued Carter. Both Mark Strong and Dominic West are in familiar territory playing unsympathetic characters, but at least they do it well. Interesting to see James Purefoy and Ciarán Hinds revisiting their Julius Caesar and Mark Antony roles in HBO’s Rome as their characters remind me so much of the historical duo. Purefoy seems to have the most fun here, I just wish he had a bigger role in the movie.

Final Thoughts: I’m glad I was able to catch this movie on the big screen before its last week of its theatrical run. I do think it looks marvelous visually and overall a pretty entertaining fare that’s worth at least a matinee price. Definitely check this out if you’re a fan of the fantasy sci-fi genre. I skipped the 3D though, and I don’t think it’ll add that much to the movie.
four and a half stars out of five
4 out of 5 reels


Thoughts about this movie? Do you have a theory why it flopped at the box office?