Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Way Over the Rainbow

It's not often that a film gets blasted before a single soul ever sees it. Normally, a well-known piece of American literature (in this case Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars") would be at least respected by potential audiences and reviewers months in advance. And yet, thanks to what has been called a "lackluster" marketing drive by Disney and a $250 million budget routinely criticized by movie "experts", there is a good chance that you will not see John Carter on the big screen in the coming days. That would be a mistake, as no matter how much Disney might not know how to advertise a movie geared towards boys (after all, their entire business used to be solely appealing to girls) it doesn't change the fact that I had a ton of fun watching it this past weekend. Todd and I had a choice between this and Silent House (which I'll be reviewing next week), and we decided that we were more in the mood for a light-hearted adventure tale than a spooky horror flick. Sure, 3D hasn't always been kind to me. Sure, it's being released in March, and there's not much released during this particular month that is usually any good. But dammit, we wanted a mindless sci-fi action film, and we didn't care from where we got it.

Soon, he'll be adding Best Picture nominee Battleship to his resume.
When Confederate Civil War hero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself mystically transported to Mars (known to the locals as Barsoom), he finds himself squarely in the middle of an inter-species conflict, as war rages between the cities of Zodanga, a warrior nation intent on destruction, and the peaceful, scientifically superior city of Helium. Somehow Zodanga's leader Sab Than (Dominic West) has gotten his hands on a weapon superior to anything Helium has been able to produce. Dominating his enemies, Sab Than is intent on conquering Helium, and taking the genius Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) as his bride. Asked to help, John Carter is searching for meaning in his life but nevertheless intent on returning to his little bit of nowhere in the American West and a substantial deposit of gold that awaits his return. In his way is the war, a tribe of green skinned aliens known as Tharks, and a mysterious sect known as the Holy Therns, who have their own plans for cities and people of Barsoom.

Yeah, yeah, she's hot... but can she ACT?
John Carter might not seem it at first, but sitting through it makes you appreciate the work of Burroughs, essentially one of the great-grandfathers of modern science fiction. First published in 1912, Carter's adventures have always enjoyed a pulpy feel to their telling, a method that translates to the big screen easily, even if this is the first time the tale has been told in such a visually spectacular way. Director Andrew Stanton, whose resume has mostly consisted of animated films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, does an excellent job in his live action debut, though perhaps not as well as his Pixar compatriot Brad Bird did with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. He's helped by the fact that most of the film is animated to begin with, with almost all the backgrounds, effects and most of the leading roles created in post-production. The design of the alien Tharks is especially realistic, helping John Carter sport the best visual effects since Avatar. Stanton also perfectly captures the intended fictional vision of Mars, a wasteland that despite looking completely barren manages to support life on a grand scale. Top it off with excellent 3D and a musical score by Michael Giacchino, and you've got a perfectly realized Barsoom, easily the most realistic-looking setting for a sci-fi film I've witnessed in a long time.

It's an early twentieth-century sci-fi story... of COURSE there's a dog!
Sadly, the story doesn't quite live up to the standards set by the special effects. Though I haven't read any of the original novels, I'm willing to bet that the quality of the story can partly be attributed to the fact that the tale itself turns one hundred this year, and certainly not everything could be included for fear of simply not getting better with age. Thankfully, this is all but solved with liberal doses of humor that are scattered evenly throughout the film. Unlike last week's Ghost Rider, the humor here is 100% intentional, so there's never that moment where you're laughing at what a farce the show has become. Sure, sometimes the humor goes a little over the top or takes the obvious route to a laugh for the expressed purpose of ending a scene, but no matter what the reason for use, John Carter never fails to be funny when called upon to do so.

"Okay, yeah... I can take them!"
Really, the only disappointing aspect of John Carter is in the acting. It's not the supporting cast that fails us, however. Drawing upon substantial talent like Dominic West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds (who seems to appear in everything these days), James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston in live action roles, the people on the screen would appear to be as mighty as any seen in the past few years. Add in the vocal talents of Academy Award nominees Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton, and you really do have a cast to be reckoned with. Sadly, it doesn't matter how many excellent supporting actors you've collected when your leads are a pair of noodles just taken out of the water. Taylor Kitsch is at least decent, though I don't see anything beyond his rugged good looks that certify him as a star in the making. Sure, he COULD be the next Hugh Jackman, but Jackman was a theatrically-trained actor who can also sing and dance, regularly showcasing abilities surpassing his presence among the top action stars in Hollywood today. If Kitsch wants to make a name for himself, he'll have to take on a role (and soon) which requires more from him than a guttural regurgitation of simplistic dialogue. The worst however is Lynn Collins, who can at least state that her performance is better than the one she put forth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. No, that's really not saying much. Perhaps it's partially the character's fault, as Dejah Thoris pretends to be a strong female role while being simultaneously disallowed the opportunity to explore that idea. I felt that the dog had better character development, not a good sign for this pretty but not talent-endowed actress.

Awww, he just wants a hug... of DEATH!
As I've said, the film has flaws. I would have loved to look more into the background of the Therns, a mystical race much like Star Trek's Q species, omnipotent space-faring people that manipulate world event not for evil, but because they can. Perhaps that can be explored in the future, as John Carter was always meant to be the beginning of a film franchise. Whether that happens or not will be decided by how much business it builds in the next few weeks, but in the meantime I seriously enjoyed this film, to the tune of #4 for 2012. Rarely last year did I witness an action film that was the match of what John Carter put before me (the only one surpassing it would have been Hanna, and that title wasn't blessed with the same level of amazing effects), and between this, Underworld: Awakening, The Hunger Games and The Avengers in the year's first half, it's turning into a good year for genre films. I for one was more than pleased to discover that catching this particular title on the big screen was indeed no mistake.

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