John Carter, the new 3D epic from Disney, is the story of John Carter (played by the ironically-named Taylor Kitsch), a bitter former military captain who finds himself transported to Mars, or “Barsoom” as the natives call it. All John Carter wants to do is mine a cave of gold on Earth, but when he meets the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium (Lynn Collins) and the four-armed giant warrior creature Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), Carter finds himself drawn into the civil conflict threatening Barsoom. The central question of the movie: will John Carter relent and help fight the good fight, or blow it off and return to his riches on Earth?
John Carter is not original, and it is not new. In fact, the movie is based on the Barsoom series of novels, specifically A Princess of Mars, published in 1912 by famed sci-fi pulp fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. The cinema’s love affair with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs is not new either. The first adaptation of Burroughs’ work appeared in 1918 with Tarzan of the Apes and many more screen adaptations have followed. From that first silent film to this $250 million Disney extravaganza, it’s easy to see why the film industry loves Burroughs. These adventures, inter-planetary or otherwise, are designed to put pulp magazines in hands and, by extension, butts in theatre seats.
Will John Carter put butts in seats? Probably. It’s backed by an exciting and pervasive marketing campaign to drive an audience to the theaters. But initial audiences will walk away a little confused by the narrative, confused by the point of the 3D, and confused about why an Abercrombie & Fitch model is sword fighting on Mars. The story of John Carter may have been cutting edge sci-fi in 1912 (indeed, Burroughs’ vision of Mars was based on the popular scientific theories of the day from astronomer Percival Lowell), it’s just anachronistic in 2012.
Details that yank the viewer right back into reality are a death sentence in fantasy films, and the casting in John Carter presents just such a problem. Perhaps one of the truest marks of a not-so-great movie is the propensity of the viewer to think, “Hey, it’s (name of the last character played) from (name of most recent production)” each time an actor appears. So it’s not a good sign that this reviewer thought, “Hey, McNulty from The Wire, what are you doing on Mars?” every time Dominic West appears as Sab Than. Taylor Kitsch is a pretty boy, but sword-fighting and loin cloth-wearing calls for a kind of rugged masculinity he can’t muster. He looks mostly like the Abercrombie & Fitch model he once was, not a world-weary Civil War vet trapped on a foreign planet.
John Carter is not without its pleasures, however; Edgar Rice Burroughs stories have been read and adapted for film for almost a hundred years for a reason. These stories, emblematic of popular American pulp fiction, are fun. There are fights, weirdo creatures, and pretty princesses in need of rescue. While the dialogue is pretty terrible, sometimes it is deliciously terrible. And the whole movie has a so-bad-it’s-good feel. In its best moments, John Carter might remind viewers of the classic Ray Harryhausen Dynamation vehicles The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.
But The 7th Voyage of Sinbad had the charm of Harryhausen’s Dynamation, and John Carter does not. Big budget and long list of technical crew notwithstanding, one of the more shocking qualities of this movie is that it doesn’t look very good. At times, the 3D is almost imperceptible. Obviously, Barsoom is a barren and desert-like landscape which will never appear postcard-pretty, but it should be epic in scope. Yet Barsoom does not look epic, but rather like the scrubby Arizona landscape that it actually is. The special effects, specifically some blue light weapon-type things, are just… lame. Despite the epic posturing of John Carter, the movie feels small and reminds us that while pulp fiction might be fun, it’s also disposable.
John Carter opens in Toronto theatres on Friday, March 9.
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