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Review - John Carter

19 May 2012
100 years in the making, was it worth the wait?
American Civil War veteran John Carter finds himself transported to the wilds of Mars where he is forced to take sides in another civil war before he can figure out a way home.

I had high hopes for John Carter, mainly due to the previous work of Pixar director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) and the 100 year old pedigree of one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction – Edgar Rice Burroughs. But while the final product is far from terrible, it simply doesn’t live up to its credentials.

It’s not from lack of trying. Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon put together an engaging enough structure for the film, telling the story through a journal left by the apparently dead Carter, read by his relative Burroughs. The early scenes on Earth mix with the transition to the red planet, and Carter’s attempt to adapt to the lower gravity of Mars make for a fun moment in a movie that has its share of giggles in the opening acts.

Then, rather abruptly, things become almost oppressively serious, despite the fact that we’re spending time jumping around like some kind of demented human flea in the company of 8 foot tall, four armed aliens. The humanoid races are locked in a brutal war which we should feel all kinds of bad about – if we could just get over how ridiculous leader Ciaran Hinds looks in his costume.

The main thrust of the story sees Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) working to unlock the powers of his magical jewellery to get back home. He enlists the help of a handy character who happens to not only be a learned scientist and a Princess of Mars but also rather conveniently hot (that’s Lynn Collins) and they head out on a rather oblique and hermetic journey which avoids the massive conflict for the most part.

It’s hard to get behind a film that spends a large part of its running time giving its hero very few heroic things to do. When Carter isn’t running away, he’s actively participating in some extra-terrestrial genocide, all so he can head back home to make some money and mope around some more.

The result is a sci-fi epic where little enough really happens. Set pieces are few and far between and much of the trailers focus on the final 20 minutes. When they arrive, the action scenes themselves are rather muddled, none more so than the disappointing encounter between Carter and a pair of towering, blind white Apes.

With a budget well in excess of $200 million, John Carter certainly throws a lot of CG and production design at the screen. But it never feels real or lived in, more designed to set up a series of unusual images than to create the impression of gaining a glimpse into another world. And while the frequently bare chested costuming is no doubt a vestige of the source material, the performers often look preposterous – a fact not helped by a skin tone which suggests nothing so much as an accident with a tanning bed.

John Carter has it’s entertaining moments but never fulfils its potential. With little audience recognition for the character, a massive price tag and an unusually early release date (well before blockbuster season) I can’t say I’m confident that we’ll ever see this character again.
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