Friday, March 16, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter

John Carter ** ½
Directed by: Andrew Stanton.
Written by: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Starring: Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Ciarán Hinds (Tardos Mors), Dominic West (Sab Than), James Purefoy (Kantos Kan), Bryan Cranston (Powell), Polly Walker (Sarkoja), Daryl Sabara (Edgar Rice Burroughs).

To me, John Carter is one of those rare movies that is not too long, but instead is too short. The film feels like an epic that was cut down to fit into a more manageable, audience friendly running time. Yes, it is still over two hours, but it still feels like scenes are missing – that the film jumps around a little too much. Unlike some critics, I don’t think that John Carter is confusing – it’s a pretty simple story – but it did remind me of a something Robert Evans said he said to Francis Ford Coppola on seeing his two hour cut of The Godfather (which of course, Coppola denies). I asked for an epic, and you delivered a trailer. John Carter probably would have worked better as an epic TV miniseries, or at least a three hour movie. As it stands now, the whole thing feels rushed.

The movie stars Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, a veteran on the Confederate side of the Civil War, who has spent his post war life digging all around the world, and amassing a huge fortune. He summons his nephew (Daryl Sabara) to his house, and when he arrives, he is told that Carter has suddenly died – and left everything to him. He has also left instructions to give his nephew his personal journal – which flashes back to Carter`s past and tells the story we will see. Carter, while searching for gold in the desert, discovers an amulet, which transports him to Mars. And so the adventure begins.

I liked much of John Carter, although because the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs on which the movie is based has been so popular, and so influential, over the years, the story seems a little more clichéd than it probably did when it was written. Still, Carters journey to Mars, where he first meets the Tharks – a race of four armed, 7 foot tall, green men, who worship strength. Soon though, he is drawn into an epic war between more human Martians. I won’t get into the details of the plot – because that would take the rest of this review.

Directed by Andrew Stanton – who made two of Pixar`s greatest films in Finding Nemo and Wall-E – the movie is filled with visual imagination. I did love the look of the Tharks – and later the White apes – and the action sequences are well handled. There are battles on top of battles, and they are entertaining. The special effects are wonderful as well. The movie is also never boring, even though some may grow restless as sometimes there are long sequences without action.

But the movie has problems as well. I could have forgiven the fact that the movie seems to skimp on some details – that it feels like some scenes are missing, which would have given more weight or logic behind the decisions made by several characters. After all, perhaps it is preferable for a movie to be rushed than to be like the later Pirates of the Caribbean films that were all nearly three hours, and took a simple story, and turned it into a long, tough slog. What is more unforgivable is the casting choices, which don’t make much sense.

The biggest problem is John Carter himself – Taylor Kitsch. He is supposed to be a grizzled, Civil War veteran, and instead, he looks like an underwear model. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of two former movie heroes – Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Carter seems like he should be a little older, a little more grizzled, a little more cynical – and Kitsch is simply wrong for the role. I never quite bought him in the role. Lynn Collins fairs slightly better – as the heroine, a Princess on Mars who is being forced by her father to marry her people’s biggest enemy to ensure peace. She is feisty and beautiful, and yet her role is one of those that feels underwritten. Ciarian Hinds, as her father, is wasted and given nothing to do. Domenic West, as the bad guy, is far too one note to be believable. Mark Strong, who is great as the bad guy in one film after another, has a blank stare on his face throughout and doesn’t generate the kind of hatred that his character should. Strangely, the performances that worked the best for me were either the ones where the actors were covered in special effects – like Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church as the main Tharks – or the ones who are barely in the movie, like Bryan Cranston as a Civil War general, who has just a few scenes near the beginning, but steals every one he is in.

In short, I loved the ideas behind John Carter, and the visual look and feel of the film, much more than the film itself. Had it been longer, and taken the proper amount of time to develop all of its characters, perhaps it could have made up for the miscasting of the lead role. On the other hand, had they cast the lead role better, the rushed storyline might not have stood out so much. As it stands now, John Carter is much less than the sum of its parts.

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