Friday, March 9, 2012
John Carter (Movie Review)
I'm not familiar with the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs or his character, John Carter. So I went into this movie only knowing that it was based on some stories written at least 50 years ago or more. (Actually closer to 100.) My ignorance was aided by the nearly non-existent marketing campaign for this movie. Was this just a big "whoops" on the part of Disney, or did they realize this was a terrible movie and didn't want to waste any more money on it?
"John Carter" is about an American Civil War veteran who lost his family after the war and now bitterly lives only for selfish gain. He is whisked away to Mars, where he discovers that it is not airless and lifeless as humanity had believed, but home to large civilizations on a downward spiral of self-destruction.
Carter is captured, but escapes, only to find himself in the middle of a war that will decide the fate of the entire planet and all who live on it. His alien anatomy and the low gravity of Mars give him relatively superhuman strength and the ability to leap amazing heights and distances. He must use every resource available to him to survive the conflict around him, and decide what his place in it should be.
Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, whom genre fans may recognize as "Gambit" from "X-men Origins: Wolverine". Kitsch is a great leading man who combines adventurous heroism with a brooding tone. The surrounding cast is also made up of familiar faces who do their jobs well, though there are no big stars and won't be any acting nominations for this movie next year.
Dominic West plays the primary villain, and though he doesn't bring any interesting layers to his performance, he's just so suited to this kind of role that the lack of depth is easily forgivable.
Mark Strong plays the mysterious big baddie pulling the strings behind West, though the mystery surrounding his character even at the end of the film implies an intended sequel.
The love interest, a Princess of course, is played by Lynn Collins, whom Wolverine fans will also recognize as the love interest from that movie as well. Her character is a wonderful paradox in terms of her role as a "Princess" in an adventure movie. She can easily fend for herself, and then some, in battle, but still welcomes being literally swept off her feet by a rescuing hero. Usually, fiction leans too far one way or the other in this regard, but I found it to be a wonderfully well-rounded balance between strength and vulnerability in a leading lady.
The world of Mars, or more properly "Barsoom", is fantastical in so many wonderful ways. Conceptually, this is a sci-fi story, with aliens on other planets and highly advanced technology. But it comes in the trappings of fantasy, with swords and armor and technology so advanced it looks like fantasy world magic. I'm a sucker for blending genres, so the setting scored pretty big points with me.
The tone of the movie also blends opposing elements nicely. The loss of John Carter's family informs his motivation, which we see more as the film progresses. This keeps him from being a two-dimensional stereotype (like Han Solo in "A New Hope") and gives us a reason for sympathizing with his bitterness.
On the other hand, the movie is full of fantasy adventure that demands we not take the story too seriously. The obviously bad science and the super-speed courtship between Carter and Dejah require a willingness to just turn a bit of our brains off and enjoy the ride. In this case, I was partially willing to do this, just because the setting and action was so fun, but it's still something I hope they will improve on or make less noticeable if another film is made.
I'd also LOVE for Hollywood to collectively improve their ability to create and use computer generated characters. This movie has a lot of them. And I mean a LOT. Some of the most crowded scenes in the movie were probably the loneliest days for Taylor Kitsch, who must have spent weeks talking to tennis balls to make this flick.
The resulting CG characters are every bit as good as those in the Star Wars prequels. And yes, that's an insult, folks. Actually, they may even be better in terms of texturing. But as always seems to be the case, the animation, not the texturing, is the problem. There is no subtlety in the movements or facial expressions of these CG characters. At least not compared to flesh and blood actors. To my eye, the realism of the animation is about the same as watching Mary Poppins dance with cartoon penguins.That said, many other effects are great-looking and the multitude of action sequences are candy for the eyes.
Two themes in this film strike me as being relevant to real world spiritual matters. The first is John Carter's bitterness over what he has lost, which leads him to adopt a very selfish attitude toward those he encounters. It's hard to condemn him. So often when I feel I'm being mistreated, I can get into a little funk or pity party where I begin to believe I am entitled to certain things. But suffering does not entitle us to neglect doing what is good and right.
The second theme is nothing new to the sci-fi genre. The true villains of this story are a race of mysterious, advanced aliens who conceal themselves from mortals while manipulating their lives on a grand scale, choosing leaders and deciding which nations will rise and fall. These beings are considered mythical messengers of "the goddess" by the people of Barsoom.
The device being used here(which may have been original if used in Burroughs' original 1912 story, though is now overused) suggests that deities (and maybe even God himself) are only advanced alien life forms. Bigger, stronger, older and smarter versions of all of us, but with a detached, unloving relationship with those under them.
The biblical picture of God is very different, portraying God as limitless, loving and completely different from whatever divine portrait our minds might invent.
Although these themes are present, I think it's unlikely that many will feel inspired to think about them much after watching the movie.
John Carter is a fantastical thrill ride that, while flawed, deserves a sequel and shouldn't be missed by any fan of sci-fi or fantasy.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
For information about my scoring system, visti spiritblade.net/reviewscores
Listen to this review this weekend at spiritblade.net/podcast