Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn
Collins and Willem Dafoe
There was a time when big, sloppy garish movies were all the rage. Those were the days; it wasn’t uncommon to see glorious trash like “Flash Gordon,” “Willow,” “Masters of the Universe” or “Conan the Destroyer.” Then, it was perfectly acceptable for a grown man to wear a codpiece made of fur, get all greased up and swing a sword while trying to save the universe. A lot of what we see in “John Carter” resembles the kind of stuff we would have seen airbrushed onto a van in the ‘70s: Muscular warriors, scantily clad princesses, and crazy imagery that seems inspired by the most rad acid trips.
The story follows title character John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran who has made his way west while looking for gold, which is apparently what people did in those days. During his search, he’s reluctantly recruited to help protect the locals from Apache Indians, who are still pretty sore about having their land stolen and their people brutally murdered. Carter wants no part of it and tries to escape. While on the run, he discovers the cave of gold he’s been searching for and is suddenly transported to Mars—or as they call it “Barsoom.”
Naturally, things are different in this far-away planet. First off, he learns he can leap a tall sand dune in a single bound thanks to lack of gravity. Second, he discovers Barsoom has a pretty liberal dress code; everyone on Barsoom shows skin. I mean everyone. It’s like an entire planet envisioned by Hugh Hefner in 1976, while under the influence of some psychotropic substance. Every outfit shows a little leg, a little midriff and some cleavage—even on the men. Just about every guy who walks onto camera has perfectly chiseled abs. Carter arrives on the planet with a shirt and a pair of pants. Before we know it, he’s trouncing around in some kind of kilt-skirt hybrid and never seems to give it a second thought.
When in Barsoom, I suppose.
The planet has seen better days. The mysterious and evil Thurns have convinced Sab Than (Dominic West) to wield the blue power that will give him the ability to rule with an aquamarine fist. That doesn’t sit well with the fair princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is told the only way she can save her home city of Helium is to marry Sab Than.
The plot of “John Carter” reads like some kind of a bad romance novel and a sci-fi fantasy film. If Fabio and “Star Wars” made a baby, this would be the product of their mating. Carter is first introduced to another species, the tribal Tharks, a race of 10-foot, green, four-armed warriors who believe there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved with a sword to the face. There, Carter learns of the dire situation that has befallen the planet and ends up saving the life of the princess. He wants her help to get back to Earth. She wants him to use his big, sweaty muscles to save her people—and maybe get horizontal should the opportunity present itself.
While watching the movie, part of me was thinking, “I’ve seen this before.” And I have. The novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs were written in the early 1900s and were the thematic foundation for every piece of modern science-fiction cinema seen today. “John Carter” isn’t subtle about sharing that with audiences. After all, it was the inspiration for films like “Star Wars” and “Avatar.” Thus, calling the film “derivative” feels a little perverse, but a lot of its elements do feel stale. In 1917 this may have been groundbreaking; in 2012 it feels a little too familiar.
Been there, conquered that.
My major issue with the film is the casting. Taylor Kitsch is a good looking guy with a hint of charisma, but there’s not a lot going on behind the eyes. He’s an effective hero if not an extraordinary one, like an American Jean-Claude Van Damme: Believable, able to kick some ass, but we wouldn’t be surprised to hear he was missing a chromosome.
Lynn Collins (Wolverine) is the real surprise here. Stunning and intelligent, she does an impressive job swinging a sword. It’s not the most flattering role, and she spends most of the movie wearing outfits that seem far too revealing for a planet with this much sand.
The secondary parts are all filled in with respectable actors doing less-than respectable work. I love Ciarán Hinds. He’s a phenomenal talent who shines when provided great material like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” When the material is less-than phenomenal, like his turn in the recent “Ghost Rider” sequel, it’s a different story altogether.
There are things to like in “John Carter.” It’s a wonderfully developed, if not remarkable world that its director, Andrew Stanton (“Up,” “Toy Story”), has brought to life. I say it’s not remarkable because I was amazed how much of Barsoom resembled the American Southwest: lots of sandy dunes and craggy rocks. Nothing about it felt otherworldly except for some of the creatures inhabiting it. Alien beings like Tars Tarkas (Willam Dafoe) are computer-generated marvels that continue to prove that a hundred geeks in front of a hundred computers can bring anything to the big screen.
There are well-staged action sequences, and the special effects are about what one would expect in a movie that costs a quarter of a billion dollars. Most of all, it’s fun, almost to a fault. It’s big, obtuse and often times cheesy enough to inspire giggles. It’s an idiotic spectacle that is far more entertaining than endearing.