Movie Review: John Carter

The movie reviews on Vagrant Rant finally get started today with John Carter, a film I saw last night in the cinema. It came out on March 8 and you should see it.

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Starring:
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong
Director:
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)
Rating: M
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John Carter Poster
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It’s always interesting to see the results when a film director known almost exclusively for one type of work tries his/her hand at another. Filmgoers got a taste of this phenomenon earlier in the year with gangster movie extraordinaire Martin Scorsese‘s family film Hugo, which won several Oscars despite its director’s violent screen reputation. In a similar vein, Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton tried his hand at making a live action film recently and the result is John Carter, which was one of my most anticipated films of 2012. While it certainly isn’t Academy Award material, the big budget Disney blockbuster is an admirable first effort.

There is one thing any prospective viewer of the film should understand before seeing it. While the trailers for John Carter may seem uncomfortably familiar to fans of the likes of Star Wars or Avatar, there is a reason for this. Carter‘s source material is considerably older than either franchise; almost exactly 100 years old in fact. Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ beloved science fiction novel series from the early 20th Century pioneered many of the conventions that were borrowed time and time again over the next several decades. So, no, that arena scene is not a cheap rip-off of the one in Attack of the Clones.

The film follows the adventures of the title character, a broken American Civil War veteran who happens upon an interstellar technology that sends him to Mars. There he discovers that the reduced gravitational pull grants him insane strength and athleticism that allows him to make ridiculously long jumps. He also gets caught up in the conflict between the four distinct races inhabiting the planet, which drives the plot along. The dated science behind Carter’s abilities and the life forms on Mars make it easy to poke fun at the film, but to do so would be missing the point of Burroughs’ sci-fi in the first place.

The old-school Disney sense of adventure prominent all the way through the two hour running time is the point and as long as it stays at the centre of the viewing experience, John Carter is a blast to watch. Unfortunately the pacing of the story is stunted by a few awkward scenes devoted to explaining the film’s mythology and despite this, there are still a handful of glaring plot holes. But these issues don’t detract enough from John Carter‘s strengths to spoil the overall feel of the movie.

This is because that sense of adventure is achieved through two things that a host of recent Hollywood action fantasy films seem to have forgotten about. The first is a refreshing focus on its characters, both human(oid) and alien. The voice talents of Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church support a chilling Mark Strong performance as the chief antagonist and the leads don’t do a bad job themselves. An alien pet named Woola, filling the resident Disney “dog” character role, is also charming and could fit into any Pixar film.

The second is a set of truly impressive action set pieces that put some of the scenes in other recent sci-fi flicks to shame. That arena scene is top-notch, as is John’s first application of his new jumping skills to ship-to-ship combat. Even better is an unexpectedly poignant sequence in which the darkest moment of John’s past is intercut with his blow-by-blow decimation of an alien horde to great effect. I saw the film without 3D and did not miss the third dimension at all.

John Carter may be a flawed film, but it represents an exciting and refreshingly enjoyable live action debut for Andrew Stanton. It deserves the sequel that its influential source material demands, but it won’t get one if people don’t watch it, so go out and give it a chance!

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Fantastic action set pieces, actual attention to characters, great sense of adventure
Bad:
Exposition-heavy, some odd plot holes
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3.5 VsG !

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Shannon on March 17, 2012 at 12:05 am

    Now that I have seen this movie, I can comment on this. I watched it in 3D and barely noticed the effects (unfortunately, Event is making it impossible to see anything in 2D anymore).

    The movie was excellent. One of the best sci fi movies I’ve seen. Despite, like you said, quite a few plot holes. I had read your review before seeing it, so I was looking out for that poignant sequence. But it was still half-way through the sequence before I realised that was what you were talking about. Too late, I already had chills from it. Damn, I still get chills just thinking about that scene. That’s potent cinema.

    SPOILERS

    I have to disagree with you on one point though. I don’t see where a sequel could fit in. Apart from his ten year absence, which could make for a good story. But does the original book cover that?

    Reply

  2. Glad you enjoyed it!

    Burroughs’ Barsoom series actually lasted eleven books, so that’s where the idea of a sequel fits in.

    Reply

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