John Carter – Review

John Carter – Review

Review by FilmFellaDarren – 4/10

Can you think of a decent film set on Mars? Go on, keep thinking… still thinking? If you came up with any of the following: Mission to Mars; Red Planet; or John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars – you really must live on another planet, perhaps even Mars, in which case you should write  a script about your experiences since there is a complete absence of good films set on Mars.

It was a trick question, there aren’t many good films set on Mars, arguably Total Recall, but nothing else. And there lies the problem for Pixar director Andrew Stanton: has he succeeded where other directors have failed and come up with an interesting narrative on Mars? Well, it’s a resounding no to that question – the colossal $250 million dollar budget certainly wasn’t spent on the script.

So why is it so hard for filmmakers to tell a good story with such a unique location? Well, it might be to do with the fact that Mars is a baron, desolate planet, with an atmosphere so hostile that the only things that can withstand it are rocks, dust and maybe the odd misplaced NASA probe. Perhaps there is not much you can do to make a narrative convincing set on Mars, or perhaps filmmakers have failed to tap into the potential of the fourth rock from the sun. Either way, the story in this totally bland sci-fi fantasy from Disney is banal and un-engaging – the visually arresting effects can only conceal just how completely conventional and dull the story is for about half-an-hour.

For a film largely set on Mars, ironically the best scenes are set on earth. Surprisingly the film opens in 18th century America, as we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) – a slightly mysterious Calvary grunt, who tellingly, doesn’t fit in.  The film starts intriguingly – you can’t help but be absorbed by the obvious question of how JC is going to be transported to Mars. The answer is passable but not that inspired and then, we see the eponymous, soon to be hero, flung onto a planet where he is instantly pursued by quadrupled armed praying mantis-like-humanoids.  They aren’t the only inhabitants of the red planet. There is also a demented, yet forgettable, human-like villain intent on destroying the city of helium – another city housing (seemingly human) beings – with some blue gun called the ninth ray. There’s a war going on then, and John Carter is thrust right in the middle of it. Which side will he take? And will his new found (inexplicable) agility hold sway in this Martian war?

This is a sci-fi film made for people who have no knowledge of sci-fi whatsoever. Maybe it is forgivable since it is a Disney production, but this film is made to wow the kids. And wow the kids it might, for what do they know about sci-fi? Everyone else will find it all too familiar. The kids will probably be unaware that the film is really just a pick n’ mix of ideas from far better films; obvious influences like Avatar and Stars wars might even be apparent to the kids, but there is a touch of The Matrix; Stargate, and Gladiator as well as influences from all the other, already derivative, recent sword and sandals films like Prince of Persia: sands of time and 300.

As the film quickly reveals itself to be a Disney princess story on another planet, the main influence seems to be another Disney film: Aladdin. The female character here is a princess (Lynne Collins), albeit one, allegedly, with an incredible grasp of science – it is the post women’s lib-world after all, so princesses have to have intelligence now of course. The savvy princess who escapes the clutches of a tyrant has more than a shade of princess Jasmine about her; and the fish out of water that is John Carter is like a burley Aladdin. Those hoping for an epic fantasy to escape into, will be frustrated then when the narrative starts heading in the director of a sci-fi version of Aladdin. The crux of the narrative is an insipid romance between two boring star crossed lovers. That kind of narrative in a film hinting at epic intergalactic war – is pretty unforgivable.

The fact that Finding Nemo director Stanton and scriptwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have a juvenile audience in mind, might be the reason why they don’t offer any explanation for anything that happens, leaving vast plot holes so gapingly wide, you half expect the gargantuan space crafts on display in John Carter to fly through them and smack you in the eye. Why can JC leap about like he is Mario in a nineties platform computer game? That’s never addressed. Why are there human figures on Mars? Why can John Carter breathe the bloody non-existent-air? They simply couldn’t be bothered to devise a reason for that one. Why do the aliens start off speaking alien, then suddenly change to English without explanation? Actually, that one can be explained as the production team wanted to make a joke about the aliens confusing John Carter’s name – the joke would only work if the aliens spoke a different language. After the joke passes, the aliens switch to English, and no one attempts to offer a reason why. This is an example of how badly thought-out the clunky narrative is. Stanton seems to be hoping that the lively set-pieces are going to be enough to draw attention from just how lame and badly thought-out the plot is. That might work if you are under ten, but if you are not, you might think, hang on, this is just a bunch of old movie narratives lazily thrown together and shoved off to Mars.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the plot was written by a man idly day-dreaming about escaping to space, whilst sitting on a toilet. It is hard to believe then that the film is based on an 11 volume series of novels then, that were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, decades before George Lucas envisioned Stars Wars. Did Disney suck the guts out of the novels? Has anyone out there in cyber-space read them? How can this soul- deadening story possibly be based on literature?

As for the alien designs, well they look like they could easily be miniaturized as McDonald happy meal toys – they are cartoonish, vaguely kooky creatures – playthings for the little-‘uns – particularly the comic relief overweight dog alien. In the wake of endless Star wars merchandise tie-ins, seeing another sci-fi film put ‘characters’ on screen that look suspiciously like toys, really sticks in the throat.

It’s a given that the retro fitted 3D does nothing to add to the experience. After about twenty minutes, your eyes register the 3D as a visual anomaly, and adjust accordingly, leaving you wondering what exactly is in 3D. Instead of adding an extra dimension to the visuals, how about adding an extra dimension to the characters Stanton and company? The central characters are token hero and love interest, and the villain, is barely registered in one dimension. The only remotely interesting screen presence is the always excellent Mark Strong, spicing up the dullness with an eerie performance as a shape-shifting devious, intergalactic monk.

If you thought there were problems with the narrative of Prince of Persia and Cowboys and aliens, wait until you see the lame and totally hackneyed story in John Carter.  The characters are weak, the pace is plodding, the dialogue is largely awkward space jargon; the film is devoid of tension and drama and the romance is definitely not compelling. Visually it does look pretty grandiose, kidding you into thinking you are watching something interesting at first, but the chronic lack of imagination renders John Carter a hollow and underwhelming experience. Stanton’s mission: a good film set on Mars…. Mission aborted.

Save your money people. If you must see a film set on Mars, seek-out:

Total Recall

The Watchmen  (for the best use of the red planet in cinema history).

Santa Claus conquers the Martians.

OK, I’m breaking the cardinal sin of movie criticism here by endorsing a film I haven’t seen. But I’ve heard great things about it, like it inspired ‘A nightmare before Christmas’. And that title is fantastic. Anyone seen it?

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

4 Responses to John Carter – Review

  1. Robert Smith says:

    I still stand by what I said about Albert Brooks in Drive. That wasn’t the greatest bit of casting even when Ben and you were shooting me down for it after the England and Wales game.

    On another note Extremely loud and incredible close has the most annoying Child actor in a leading role since Will Smiths son!

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    Thanks for your comments Rob – I’m glad you are regularly reading The Filmfellas. Well, film is subjective so everyone is entitled to their opinion, but personally I thought Albert Brooks was really threatening in Drive – yet in an understated way. That is all the more impressive since he has an extensive background in comedy. I can see why you thought the boy in Extremely loud and extremely close was annoying, but for me that was by design. He is quite unlikeable, rude and obnoxious at times, but it all adds to this sense he is socially awkward and can’t function around people – which conveys the point of the film. Checkout my Best picture blog for more on that film.

  3. Don Estrada says:

    Despite the many flaws you mentioned, I enjoyed the film for what it was. Escapism. I didn’t care if the movie was lacking scientifically. Just my 2 cents.

  4. Filmfella Darren says:

    Thanks for your two cents Don. Here’s an extra two cents from me. I’ve just watched the trailer for John Carter again and although I’ve seen the film, disliked it, and reviewed it – it looked promising to me again. Then I remembered how awfully executed the story was. The trailer makes it look like it is going to be an epic piece of space themed escapism, but the reality is that it fails to take your brain to another dimension, as the story is so plodding, life-less, uneventful, familiar and formulaic that it stops being entertaining and starts being a bit of a drag, thus ceasing to function as a piece of escapism. It’s an outdated piece of sci-fi too. I’ve no doubt that the original novels were seminal, but the likes of George Lucas got in there early, feasting on the flesh of the story like a vulture tearing pieces off an animal. Any good ideas this story had have long been used by other directors, so all that is left is the bare bones of a story – which gives the impression this film is derivative when really the author of the story probably created the blue-print for modern sci-fi. It’s thirty years too late to be the piece of interplanetary escapism it wants to be. As for the scientific inaccuracies – I would have been willing to suspend disbelief and go with the ideas on screen, providing they gave things a little context, but there is a real sense that the scriptwriters just couldn’t be bothered to address any of the issues that would bring gravitas to the alleged Mars setting, so it has no chance of convincing. I’m standing by my opinion – John Carter is riddled with flaws.

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