(Image from Imp Awards)
John Carter (2012)
Critics have been unkind to this one and audiences have been indifferent. Their loss, as this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal pulp book directed by Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton is an above average adventure film.
Taking place in the American Civil War era, the film follows vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he goes in search of a fortune in gold. An encounter with the military leads to him going on the run and finding a mystical cave where he encounters an alien being. A brief tussle leads to Carter being 'transported' across space to the planet Mars; here he encounters a veritable menagerie of strange creatures and people, from the war like giant four armed green Tharks to giant white apes to the red skinned tribal humanoids of Mars.
The plot involves a war between two 'human' tribes, progressive Helium and barbaric Zodanga. The Zodangan leader, Sab Than (Dominic 'Jimmy McNulty' West), is being steered by powerful manipulators known as Therns (let by Mark Strong's Matai Shang) - empowered by Thern technology, he brings Helium to its knees and then offers them peace in the form of a marriage between himself and the feisty Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). John Carter's presence on the planet introduces a new unexpected element into the equation as his earth gravity bred body is super strong on Mars, making him a fearsome warrior and thus a potential weapon/threat for the various factions, including the Tharks (led by Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe via motion capture).
Phew, and that's just the first 30 minutes or so of a two hour plus film which features copious amounts of adventuring and combat and various twists and turns!
Which is part of the problem with the film - it has an overly convoluted (though not overly confusing) plot, and it drags in places. Also a weakness are the sketchily drawn characters. Both of these flaws are true of the source material as well, so in that sense it is a faithful adaptation! The biggest weakness however is Taylor Kitsch who makes a disappointingly bland John Carter; this coupled with his two-dimensional characterisation in the script makes the eponymous hero something of a disappointment.
You'd think the collection of criticisms I've listed would derail the film, but fortunately its strengths manage to compensate.
First, the visuals and designs. It's about to become one of the biggest flops of all time, but the money is definitely there on the screen in the grand realisation of an alien world and creatures that may not take CGI to a new level but certainly represent it at the top of its game. Second, the tone - this isn't a serious movie and it knows it, and it tells its story with a level of campy seriousness (except for Kitsch, admittedly) coupled with silly goofiness. There are some genuinely funny and even endearing moments, Third, the action and adventure have a sense of fun and energy that matches the tone; this perhaps derives from Stanton's animation background as it wouldn't seem out of place in a Pixar film (not a bad thing). And finally, there's the rest of the cast, most of whom are in tune with the material. Lynn Collins in particular is terrific as the Princess, the one fleshed out character in the story (ironic since she was among the more superficial ones in the book) who drives proceedings while Kitsch falters. And yes, she is very easy on the eyes to boot!
The folks I watched this with were lukewarm towards it, so perhaps I'm in the minority on this one, but I dug it and would definitely watch it again. It's a fun adventure film that does what it says on the tin and to my mind is far superior to many of the other sci-fi/adventure films that have come out in recent times. One last thing, John Carter's weird alien dog companion Woola is an absolute hoot!