John Carter (2012)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 3/17/12
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara

A fun and pulpy science fiction adventure from Edgar Rice Burroughs that's in the vein of "Flash Gordon", but unfortunately dragged down by wooden characters, pedestrian dialog, and sluggish pacing. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a broken down Civil War veteran who gets accidentally transported to Mars when he tangles with a supernatural being. Much to everyone's surprise, the air is breathable and the climate is hospitable. Additionally, the planet's reduced gravity makes Carter super strong and able to jump long distances (Earth has a similar effect on Superman). He is captured by a tribe of creatures known as Tharks, and then manages to rescue the humanoid princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from a pursuit force led by the tyrannical Sab Than. The "villains" of the film are a group of immortal and invincible beings who have decided to supply Sab Than with superior weaponry so that he can subjugate and destroy the planet. Apparently, these beings feed off of planetary destruction. Carter is a wild card and a thorn in their side, although they seem to find his constant meddling amusing. Their motivations are unclear, and despite their limitless power, they only pose a threat when it's convenient to the plot. Carter manages to stop Than's plans, but for how long?

Visually, the film is delightful to watch. The computer animated characters mesh seamlessly with the environments and the human actors, and I was extremely impressed by how the Tharks moved, communicated, emoted, and interacted with Carter. The architecture and technology also look great. Excellent production values all around. Unfortunately, the screenplay is a bit weak and the acting is uneven and unremarkable. The writing definitely aims for the lowest common denominator and dumbs everything down in an attempt to reach an undiscerning mainstream audience. It's predictable, formulaic, and doesn't take any chances, but given the film's reported $250 million budget, it really can't afford to take any risks. Sadly, the mundane family friendly approach is what keeps the film from achieving greatness.

That's not to say that it's not enjoyable, because it is, but ultimately I felt let down. The film could definitely benefit from tighter pacing to keep the action moving, as it grinds to a halt whenever people start talking. This is particularly true for Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, as their interactions lack chemistry and their romance is unconvincing and lifeless. As far as space princesses go, Dejah Thoris has it all. She's smart, beautiful, feisty, well grounded, knows how to fight, and enjoys verbally sparring with Carter. Unfortunately, she has no personality or presence, which makes it very difficult to connect with her. Taylor Kitsh fares marginally better, but his performance feels misguided and uneven. The music score is good, but overly cliché, just like the rest of the film. Given the massive amount of people who worked on the film, the ending credits are compressed to a confusing mess of names without any delimiting white space. It's visually offensive, and I hope it's not going to become the new standard. If you go into the film with no expectations, "John Carter" is a fun time waster, and its B-movie sensibilities may actually improve with age.