John Carter ***
One Liner Review:
A pretty cool other-worldly action movie in the vein of a Star Wars meets Flash Gordon.
Now here’s a fun interplanetary sci-fi adventure that crosses over Star Wars with Lord of the Rings. It’s got the spaceships and future technology, but it’s also got the sword and sandals level of grounded combat. The story is pretty good too. It’s about life on another planet and what happens when a man from earth gets teleported there. He’s got unique abilities, including the ability to jump extremely high and to be overly strong. John Carter uses these abilities to get involved in a war that is going on between two cities, and to bring a third group into the battle, a group of alien creatures. The movie is told really well, including a beginning that really takes its time introducing us to the character, before he ever heads to Mars. The attention to detail here is really nice too. A little more time to establish his strength would have been nice (the same way that the movie took its time to establish his jumping skills,) and some of the action could have been stronger. Specifically the hand to hand combat. But as far as space adventures go, this one is a lot of fun.
John Carter is a surprisingly good movie. It did terrible at the box office, and is noted as one of the most expensive movies ever made. Pretty hard to make that kind of money back with a property that isn’t part of an already built in franchise. And the minds behind the marketing of this movie second guessed it all the way to the finish line. Look at just the title alone. The movie is based off a book called “A Princess of Mars.” That would have been a fine title for the film. It would have indicated to people who were not in the know about it, that this movie was about Mars. But the powers that be felt that boys would not want to go see a movie with Princess in the title (I guess they forgot about the Princess Bride.) So they changed it to John Carter of Mars. And you know what? That title is even better. It would have been perfect. But then they second guessed it again, thinking now that girls would not want to see it, because it sounded too sci-fi (what about Star Wars?) And so they changed it to just be called John Carter… the most bland title ever. Literally just a persons name without any indication of anything sci-fi related. This was the worst title yet, and it’s the one they stuck with.
But a title isn’t everything, and this movie was poorly marketed as well. Considering how much money was spent on making the movie, there wasn’t enough word of mouth about how this was the new Star Wars, which is what the movie really needed. It came out in March, when clearly this should have been a summer movie. Between Lord of the Rings, which came before this, and Avatar, which came after it, there was definitely a hunger at the box office for sci-fi big budget fantasy adventures. This movie just didn’t let audiences know that that’s what it was. Another thing that might have helped was some kind of major star in the film, that people could recognize, even if it wasn’t in the starring role. Someone like Sylvestor Stallone (he had already tried this genre with Judge Dredd, and this movie would have been a far better fit for him, like the Guardians of the Galaxy films, in which he appears in the second movie.)
But despite all of this horrible marketing and terrible decision making behind the scenes, John Carter is a pretty good movie. It’s good because it’s smart and entertaining and fun as hell. The movie is indeed about life on another planet and in no way shies away from that (like say, the movie Artemis Fowl does, telling us there’s another world out there, but then taking place almost entirely on earth, above the surface, in and around a mansion.) John Carter takes place almost entirely on Mars. But it is also smart enough to give us a nice lengthy prologue that gets us to understand the character long before he gets there. First we are with Carter’s nephew, at the funeral of Carter, as he is given Carter’s journal and some instructions. Then we flashback to see Carter in the Arizona territory during the time of the Civil War, when he’s out on his own searching for a cave of gold in the desert.
Carter is caught and captured by the Confederate army, and he is locked up. There is an incredibly funny sequence here where he keeps escaping, over and over and over again. He just jumps up and dives right through windows, and the movie uses fast cuts to make this all the more humorous. And then there is the final time he escapes and is riding away from the army on horseback. He ends up running right into a Native American tribe. There is an attack, and Carter is left with the Commanding Ofiicer of the army, (played by Bryan Cranston,) who has been injured. The two of them together find the cave and go inside, where a mysterious being, known as a Thern shows up, dressed in robes that glow. The Thern attacks and Carter shoots him. He then grabs the thing that was in the Thern’s hand, a medallion, and is transported to another world. And all of this happens before Carter gets to Mars.
Talk about an introduction. This beginning is so long that it is hard to consider it a prologue (the prologue was probably just the nephew getting the journal, or maybe the quick opening on Mars where the Therns show up on the flying ship of the villain, Sab Than (Dominick West of the Wire,) and empower him with a blue twisty wire hand weapon that shoots laser blasts. The fact that we get so much about Carter before he even gets to Mars is pretty terrific. Someone else might say, let’s get to Mars already, or “is this going to cut into the amount of time we get to spend on Mars then?” The answer is no. It is simply to get us started and into the movie and the character before going to another planet with him. kind of like how some movies might start off in black in white so that when they do bring in color, the color looks fantastic. Here, when Carter gets to Mars, the planet looks and feels fantastic.
He arrives there, on his back, in an empty wasteland of a desert. And he gets up and tries walking. Only he can’t. Every time he takes a step he floats up into the air and then crash lands to the ground. He realizes he has to go slow, and so he tries to just drag his feet, but even that becomes difficult as he can’t keep his balance. Taking the time to show us this, in such detail is pretty great. This is the movie not taking anything for granted, establishing exactly what the situation is here, with the gravity on the planet, and letting us experience it the same way that Carter is. An alien army shows up. These are the Tharks. And now we start learning about the planet. In fact, technically we began learning about it at the very start of the film with a voice over explaining a few things, but here is where we get our first real answers. The planet is called Barsoom (not Mars.) And like in Star Wars, they have their own names for things here. So the word KING is out and the word Jeddak is in.
Tars Tarkas is the Jeddak of the Tharks, just like villain Sab Than is the Jeddak of his city, the Zodanga. But there is more. This movie isn’t just about two warring armies. Remember, there is. whole planet here. And so this is a third city and army, the city of Helium. Both Zodanga and Helium have been at war for many years. Now, with the weapon that Sab Than has acquired from the Therns, he has become more powerful than ever, and is able to destroy people of Helium easily. He uses this power to threaten the city and get the Jeddak of Helium to agree to marry his daughter off to Sab Than in an agreement that will bring the two cities together in peace. Meanwhile, Carter is dealing with the alien army that captured him, and in understanding where he is and what this place is all about.
Carter quickly learns that because of his bone density and the planets gravity compared to what he is used to, he can jump incredibly high and also has amazing strength. These are like super powers. Especially the high jumping. That skill is well established here, and would have been enough. The super strength part needed more. We needed to see this in action, early, not so much against enemies, but maybe like against a wall or stone. Still, this movie does so much that it hardly has time to do anything more. It takes the time to establish that the Tharks speak a different language than Carter, and that he can’t understand them, (which is why he ends up being called Virginia by them, because they think that’s his name.) It is only after Carter drinks this special liquid that they give him, that he can understand their language. And now, for the benefit of the audience, the aliens speak English, (but we can simply interpret it as Carter understanding them.)
These Tharks looks pretty cool. They have four arms each and are created with CGI. Sure, practical effects like costumes of a Jim Henson caliber would have looked better and more realistic, but that’s just not the way anymore (it officially fell off somewhere between the Lord of the Rings movies, which used costumes for the Uruk-Hai army, and the Hobbit movies, which did not.) But as far as CG effects go, these looks fine. And what adds to their character is that they have veteran actors providing the voices here… Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church. There are also some pretty cool other alien creatures, aside from these, including a space dog of sorts that flies through the air at a speed that is practically teleporting. And some giant white apes that show up later on for a gladiator-like showdown in the arena.
When John Carter witnesses the war between Zodanga and Helium, in airships that fly above his head shooting lasers at each other, he jumps up to reach them and save the Princess who is falling to her death. He brings her back too the Tharks, and they aren’t especially happy. When one of the Tharks, Sola, the daughter of the Tharks leader, helps them, she gets into trouble too. Now all three of them, Carter, The Princess, and Sola go on the run. They are in search of the cave that can bring Carter back to his own time. But they get tangled up with these three warring tribes along the way. And that becomes the basis for the movie. There’s so much to like here, from the different creatures to the names to the fact that there are three warring tribes to the way the movie establishes characters and situations by taking its time with them. There is a small list of things that could have been done better, such as establishing that strength super power. Especially when it leads to one sequence where Carter is attacked by an army of aliens who keep piling on him more and more and he is easily able to fight off every one of them. The action here is fun, but it relies too heavily on CG, to the point where it doesn’t feel real at all. This is where stunt and fight choreographers need to come in to help out and stage the fights so that they are believable. Still, as far as other worldly movies go, this one is pretty good. The story is entertaining and creative and this is definitely a fun escapist film.