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Friday, March 16, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter

Hey there Chaos fanatics! Old Professor Chaos is back with another update. My wife and I just saw John Carter. Long story short- don't believe all the negative hype. John Carter is a good movie for Sci-Fi and pulp fans. So, let's get to it...

There's been lots of talk about how this movie cost a fortune, wasn't well advertised, caused a lot of problems at Disney, is a "huge" failure for a PIXAR guy, etc. Well, some of those things ARE true, but others are either simply opinion or backlash. When my wife and I went to see John Carter, we had of course read about these issues prior, but we both like Sci-Fi, and we wanted to make up our own minds. We're pleased that we did, as it turns out that John Carter is a fresh, interesting, and above all, entertaining Sci-Fi movie.

John Carter is a veteran of the Civil War- scarred by terrible loss during that conflict between the North and the South. Frustrated and broken, Carter goes out west, searching for something... he says "treasure"- but it may also be forgetfulness. Out west, he deals with Native Americans and US Cavalry officers (both of which want Carter's 'help'). He doesn't want to get involved, but things turn ugly between the US Cavalry and the Natives, with Carter literally getting caught in the crossfire. Finally, as he tries to hide in a cave, he discovers... well, without giving it all away- a device that transports him to Mars (or, as the Martians call it: Barsoom).

Once on Mars, he discovers that he has powers (due to Mars' gravity). He also discovers that there is a civil war going on there too- two groups of "Red Martians" are battling each other, while a third group, the green skinned Tharks get caught in the crossfire. Again, John Carter is asked to pick sides- he doesn't want to, but between his unlikely new friend in the green skinned Tars Tarkas and the pleas of a beautiful Red Martian princess, Carter gets drawn into the conflict. John Carter, lost on Earth, finds his place on Mars, battling to save his friends and both Mars and even Earth itself.

One of the best things about John Carter is its sense of history. Everything in John Carter has a sense of long history. The man himself has lived through the bloodiest years in U.S. history. On Mars, again, everything has a long history. The Tharks, the Red Martians, the very landscape itself. It helps that the Martian factions all have their own culture. In particular, the Tharks are given a lot of attention- their notions on community, child rearing, war, and governance are all well drawn and interesting: in some ways very much like us, and very alien in other ways. Some of the best moments in the movie was seeing how John Carter reacted to these four- limbed aliens and their cultural "peculiarities". The two Red Martian factions also have their own cultural identities, though they are not as well examined on screen as the Tharks. Again though, everyone and everything has a history, and that makes for strong Sci-Fi.

Another thing this movie has is a sense of the "epic". Without saying this movie is of that quality (it isn't), John Carter borrows much from historical epics. John Carter journeys all over Barsoom, seeing the different races, exploring the world, finding hidden/lost temples, fighting off enemies and the elements, gets captured, escapes, fights again, and finally, gets involved in a civil war whose outcome could destroy Mars (and Earth, ultimately). There are moments where this movie clearly borrows from Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, Gladiator, Braveheart, etc. Again, it is not as good as those, but as you watch, you get the feeling that this is a Sci-Fi historical epic. Sweeping vistas, large wars, different cultures, etc. all make you feel as if you are watching a historical epic unfold. This is then expanded upon when you see some parallels between Earth and Mars- the Tharks are clearly "inspired by" Native Americans, while the two warring Red Martian factions are the North and the South, the Martian wastelands are evocative to the American west, etc. In all, John Carter is a Sci-Fi historical epic that is a breath of fresh air compared to recent movies.

The acting in John Carter is quite solid, but not outstanding. Serviceable is a word that I would apply here. Taylor Kitsch plays the title hero, and he's OK in the role. Good, but not great. He does the job of playing he broken man whose life is re-energized by being put on Mars. Perhaps another actor might have brought more zest to the role. As it is, Kitsch is alright, but doesn't really stand out. He's great in the action scenes though. In particular, Carter's fight against the "white apes" is fun. As an aside, some say it steals from Attack of the Clones- but that came out in 2002, and don't you think it copied from Gladiator, which came out in 2000, but didn't that copy Spartacus... see my point? Any arena scene borrows from others- so what? (End Rant)

The "Princess of Mars" Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins, is every but as spunky as Princess Leia, and just as vulnerable. Collins is fun, and not at all hard on the eyes (I hope my wife isn't reading this... haha). It's also nice to see Ciran Hinds and James Purefoy (veterans of HBO's Rome) working together as the leaders of Helium, though their roles are all too short. Dominic West and Mark Strong play the villains, and while I loved West in 300, he was simply OK here. Mark Strong does better as Matai Shang, the real but shadowy threat to Barsoom- and Shang's ultimate goal is interesting and really pulpy Sci-Fi. Strong has been in a lot recently, but I didn't care for him in either Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood. He was good as Sinestro in Green Lantern, but it was a brief bit. Here, I think Strong is really good- a menace that has great powers AND great patience- drawing all those around him into his web.

However, the best actor here is Willem Dafoe. Using motion capture, Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas, a tribal leader of the Tharks, which are like 7 feet tall, green-skinned, with 4 limbs and large tusks on the sides of his mouth. Dafoe plays Tarkas with great warmth, passion, and conviction. Dafoe, like Andy Serkis, shows how motion capture can create a unique, strong, and otherworldly performance. Tars Tarkas is a tough leader, but one who is also humane, and who thinks that the arrival of John Carter heralds a new beginning for his people. Dafoe is great in this role, and CGI people and movie directors should take note- this is what CGI can really do.

Speaking of CGI- the special effects are wonderful in John Carter. The creature effects are simply amazing. The movie gives you some wonderful sights too, particularly the Martian air ships, which look like dragon flies and sail on solar power, but they also look totally realistic. There's also the Martian city of Zodanga, a city that walks, which is fascinating to look at. There is a ton of imagination in this movie, and the special effects are more than up to the task of bringing this to the screen.

The direction is great too- Andrew Stanton is not afraid of letting action clearly flowing on screen- the fights are easy to follow, without a ton of cutaways which are all too common (and distracting) in so many movies. Stanton is also not afraid to linger on the effects or the scenery, allowing the viewer to marvel at the hundreds of Tharks in their village, or taking in the desolate wastes of this fictionalized Mars. Sometimes, movies should slow down, and give audiences that sense of wonder, which is present here.

The movie has its flaws, no doubt. There were segments of dialogue that could be trimmed. The music was not particularly memorable either. Though Michael Giacchino has some good scores under his belt, this one was just passable. It needed something strong, or otherworldly, and we got neither, sadly. And although Kitsch was serviceable, he wasn't great as the hero, which hurts the overall story. There were also some elements that I could plainly see were setting up a sequel, which may not have been needed. Of course, I know Carter is a book series, but I think some of those things could be trimmed, saved for the sequel itself.

And I hope there is a sequel. John Carter was a fun time at the movie. This movie had a sense of the historical epic, while being a solid Sci-Fi movie. The special effects were great, and the camera gave the audience a chance to really look at this complex and old alien world. I am convinced that it will find a cult following one way or the other. My wife and i enjoyed it, and I give this movie 3 out of 4 Marks of Chaos. If you like Sci-Fi, you really should check this out. You won't be disappointed.

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