Monday, March 12, 2012

Review: John Carter

This weekend I undertook a trek to the cinema to catch John Carter.  I understand there was a lot of derision aimed at this film when it was announced some months back.  I kept an open mind going in, but being a movie buff, there were a couple of things that stuck out about it before its release.  First of all, there's the fact that the movie came out in March as opposed to the summer blockbuster season.  For a film that cost $250 million to make, this was not a good sign.  Second, there's the fact that this film was a post-production 3D cut as opposed to being filmed in 3D.  I can't attest to how the film might look in 3D, as I generally refuse to see post-production 3D edits (they're usually bad...Clash of the Titans, I'm looking at you!)  So this review will only approach the film itself, rather than the 3D effects (but honestly I wouldn't expect too much from that.) 
So, knowing these facts, and of course knowing how they changed a lot of things from the book after viewing the trailers, I didn't expect a lot going in.  I'll go ahead and get it out there now before you read any further; if you are a purist of the book series, and won't accept anything less than a near word-for-word transition to the screen, you will be disappointed with this film.  The crew was pretty liberal in how they handled the original source material.  If you can get over that, then John Carter might be an enjoyable film for you.
Obviously for those familiar with the source material, you'll know that this story is more a science fantasy than science fiction.  The basic scientific facts about Mars are ignored in this film, and rightly so.  It's a fantasy for crying out loud.  As to the story itself, while convoluted at times, it seems to work.  I think that most who are not familiar with the original novel series might walk away from this movie not completely understanding the story.  There's quite a bit of exposition involved, and much of it is presented poorly and in a confusing manner.  The whole "show don't tell" is largely ignored in this movie.  It's not as mind numbingly bad as The Last Airbender in that regard, but it's still pretty hollow. 
Personally I think the time they invested in exploring the exposition of the world of Barsoom, and all its denizens, could have been better used to develop all the personal relationships between Dejah, Sola, the dog-thing, and John.  The dog's unrelenting loyalty to John, while charming, is never fleshed out really.  The scenes of dialogue between John and Dejah are wooden and hollow, for the most part.  The introduction of the Therns in this film as a major plot element really didn't fit at all.  When explaining (again through boring dialogue) why the Therns do what they do, it's basically a "for the hell of it" reason, which is pretty dumb.  They do serve a role in getting John to and from Barsoom, which is different than the book, but in the film's climax, it is pretty satisfying.
The acting, for the most part, is pretty wooden.  Taylor Kitsch does an alright job as Carter, but certainly nothing noteworthy.  Lynn Collins as Dejah is only a step above.  Honestly the most endearing character in the movie is Woola the dog-thing.  Its unwavering loyalty to John is amusing, if not mysterious.  Dominic West was probably the most disappointing in the film though.  He played the conquering warlord Sab Than, and was about as out of place in this film as one can get.  It's a real disappointment because anyone familiar with his work on The Wire will note that he truly is a fantastic actor, given the right role.  Sab Than was certainly not the right role for him.
The effects in the film were very well done.  Yes, the CGI representation of the Tharks was not even remotely convincingly realistic, but still were well done.  At times the film seemed like a cartoon/live action hybrid film.  The action sequences were by far the best parts of the movie.  Watching John bounce around all over the place was pretty entertaining.  I would have liked to have seen a lot more of the giant white apes than what we got (a rather hasty arena fight between John and two of the beasts.) 
Overall I think the film hit really well in a lot of areas (action, decent effects, a quality representation of Barsoom on the screen) and missed in others (story, convoluted plots, villains who were neither noteworthy or intriguing.)  It is what it is.  A fun, family friendly science fantasy action adventure popcorn film.  It's a good vs evil tale with good attention placed upon the pulpy nature of the source material, if not the underlying plot elements.  Worth a trip to the movies, again, in 2D only.