I just watched the film John Carter (of Mars). I’ve been rooting for this film for a while, partly because I love the pulp style sci-fi/fantasy genre, partly because I’m rooting for semi-local boy Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and partly because if the source material is half as good as people who’ve read it say it is, it needs to be seen. So how was it? There may be spoilers ahead, so be forewarned.
Let’s hit the positives first. Good god DAMN, this movie is beautiful to look at. The special effects work is quite excellent, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t get nominated for something in a technical category when the Oscars or the Golden Globes comes around. This is the only movie I’ve seen in 3D where the 3D actually enhanced the film experience, perhaps because it was shot in 3D (at least I think) but more likely because it was almost always well-lit. Movies that are mostly in the dark (like 2011’s Conan the Barbarian) just don’t work in 3D. I did eventually become fully immersed in the world of Barsoom, largely because the effects made even the most alien of things seem so real. And the fight scenes, with one exception, were all pretty awesome.
Everyone played their part well, but special consideration should go to Taylor Kitsch. His performance might be slammed for being too “generic”, but that, in fact, is a strength: this is wish fulfillment fantasy at its purest. When you’re trying to make a character young men can project themselves onto, it helps to tone down the personality, or at least make sure it doesn’t stray too far from the action hero archetype. Despite the occasional allusion to a dead wife and child, Carter’s personality is “rebellious”, “badass” and “rebellious badass”. Luckily, the other characters mostly make up for it. Princess Dejah, Tar Tharkas, Sola and the dog-thing were all quite charming, and the real villains (the Tharns) had an actual element of threat to them.
That said, this is not a movie for everyone. You need patience. The first scene is a confusing mess of an opening. It starts with opening narration, that properly establishes the warring cities, then a cool fight happens. Then, bald dudes in robes kill everyone except the sort-of main villain of the movie, then shoot a blue web up the dude’s arm and it gives him magic powers. Then, it turns to Carter in post-Civil War USA, which was pretty cool. Then, right to Mars, and a scene where Carter bounces around in a somewhat amusing way, before getting into the main story. Even then, a lot of the terminology is prohibitive to people like me, who haven’t read the books. It’s worst in the first scene with Dejah, which had the added detriment of them going on about techno-babble. What is the ninth ray? I can’t tell what it is aside from “science-y magic that can do whatever you want”. It is mentioned that it’s a way to harness unlimited energy, but that’s it. Even then, this is a pretty predictable story. Part of it is that most sci-fi movies have been inspired by this franchise, but part of it is that it’s transparently obvious wish fulfillment fantasy for boys.
The characters do interact well for the most part, but Dejah and John’s love story is perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen. Yes, it is pretty clear that they’re into each other, and I can see why (they’re both super sexy and powerful, and Dejah is also a brilliant scientist and a princess, which is unbelievable now that I think about it) but they shouldn’t have gotten married at the end. It just didn’t make sense for those characters.
Also, one fight scene has John tearing through a bunch of Martians (apparently rivals of the Tharn) with scenes of his dead wife and kid flashing in and out occasionally. It wasn’t a bad fight (in that the outnumbered hero with a sword beats the other hundred dudes without getting a scratch) but it was ruined by the constant shifts. Why would one even do that? I don’t get it.
All told, I do recommend this movie, conditionally. If you love sci-fi and fantasy, you should enjoy this. If you’re cool with paying a lot of attention, you should see it. Despite its flaws, it is a charming movie, and I was engaged enough to want to read the books afterwards. I do recommend that if you see it, you should see it in 3D as it makes the effects look that much better.
Final score: 6/10
Afterthought: They picked a pretty bad name for this movie. “John Carter” is a boring movie name. Princess of Mars was out, thanks to the Asylum, but “John Carter of Mars” sounds cool, as would “Warlord of Mars” or anything other than a common English name that’s easy to lose in the mix. They may as well have titled the “we actually don’t want you to see this.”