Saturday, March 17, 2012

Most of Mars Attacks in John Carter

     Last summer, I (wrongly) was highly anticipating Cowboys and Aliens, which starred James Bond and Indiana Jones as foes who join hands to take out a common enemy: creepy and vicious extra terrestrials. I mention this disappointing film because it caused me to learn a lesson when it comes to big budget extravaganzas that meld together two separate genres. You can't count on entertainment no matter how much cash is being thrown at a movie. Skepticism flowed from my mind when watching the first trailers for Disney's reportedly $250 million dollar adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1940's series of novels based on the planet Barsoom (which we, citizens of Earth, refer to as Mars). They surely lacked impressiveness: full of generic action and corny dialogue, it seemed like Prince of Persia 2. Fortunately, the film is filled with a bevy of awesome actors who are at least entertaining to watch, even if the pacing leaves much to be desired and some incomprehensible plot points occur now and again.
     John Carter is similar to Cowboys and Aliens in some regard. It has the same type of not-taking-itself-too-seriously humor, powerful other-worldly weapons going against ancient staples (swords), and a mild love story that isn't too exciting for most of the run time. But--once the story leaves the stale American soil--John Carter does have a sense of wonder, and it is totally gorgeous to gaze upon (it will look incredible on Blu Ray, as did Wall-E, director Andrew Stanton's last film before making his live-action debut). The set-up in America before the Mars stuff is slow and merely passable. John Carter is a civil war veteran who is something of a loose cannon. He gets taken prisoner by a Colonel--Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, relishing a small and humorous role--who want's him back in the fight. After getting wounded, Carter takes the Colonel to a cave that seemingly has mysterious properties. A man in a robe appears out of thin air, and after a struggle Carter gets accidentally sent to Barsoom through a mystical amulet.
      Somehow, Mars (Barsoom) has an atmosphere which allows breathing and gravity is different but still present (John can jump incredible distances, and everyone in the film is unbelievably amazed, like jumping really far is more impressive than gigantic flying ships and creatures with four arms). The scene in which he discovers his new jumping ability is fun and funny, with John jumping and falling across the new barren landscape. John soon gets discovered by a race of Jar Jar Binks-with-tusks looking thingies, and he finds out that Barsoom is ravaged by the war of two human cities, and the race of aliens (called Tharks) is basically caught in the middle.
     The story also delves into supernatural and eternal beings, a princess who has to marry a ruthless and conscious-free warrior, and Tharks on a pilgrimage to appease the Goddess. But let's not get into that stuff here. Some of the action is great, even if we're wondering to ourselves, How much can John Carter rely on his new-found jumping ability? The film is filled with actors that have appeared in lots of good productions over the years, specifically in two great HBO shows. Caesar and Marc Antony of Rome make appearances. McNulty from HBO's The Wire portrays the ruthless man who is to marry the princess. Unfortunately, he is being controlled by an eternal being looking to destroy the planet, who can only been seen to those who he shows himself too. This being is played by Mark Strong, who was so great in last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Guard, two films that made my year end top ten list. Everyone here is entertaining and serviceable, but no one especially stands out, not even Taylor Kitsch in the lead role of John Carter.
     The pacing is where the film's problems lie. We get good action, then incomprehensible dialogue. An exciting chase scene, then romantic banter between two characters who have barely met. As soon as the excitement of each visually-striking action scene winds down, most of the fun leaves John Carter. It's like you poked a hot air balloon with a sharp object and the gorgeous views and adrenaline slowly come back to Earth (or Mars, in this case). John Carter was a big risk for Disney, a risk that surely didn't pay off for American audiences. With a $250 million dollar budget, it needed to make back a lot of that money on the first couple of weekends to be considered a success. And it didn't. But John Carter is a success at one thing: being a movie that is fun enough and slightly above-average.     (C+)

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