Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hollywood Product: 'John Carter'

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 12:50 PM

DEJAH VIEW: Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in John Carter
GENRE: Old-school sword-and-airship swashbuckler

THE PITCH: Civil War cavalryman turned Arizona prospector John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported to Mars, where he takes up the cause of Martian Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, who’s like a classy Megan Fox) against a vicious warlord (Dominic West) secretly manipulated by wizard-like schemers (lead by Mark Strong).

MONEY SHOTS: Apart from a passing resemblance to Delgo, the nine-foot, four-armed Green Martians look pretty cool, and it’s funny when blustering males knock their face-tusks like rams butting horns. Woola, John Carter’s super-fast, super-ugly pet dog-monster steals his every scene. A sacred river is the best of the many breathtaking location shots. John Carter fights a pair of Kong-sized albino apes in a spectacular arena sequence near the end.

FIRST THINGS WORST: Unconfident fantasy epics like this and last year’s Conan the Barbarian frequently start with lousy narration and prologues. John Carter gets off on a particularly bad foot, with Willem Defoe intoning, “You do not know Mars, for its true name is Barsoom!” before a hasty, confusing introduction of the bad guys.

BEST PERIOD-SPECIFIC LINE: Dejah deduces John was teleported from Earth to Mars Barsoom, and John says, “You’re saying I was telegraphed here?”

BEST RUNNING JOKE: Initially, green Martian chieftain Tars Tarkas (voiced and motion-captured by Willem Dafoe) mistake John’s home state for his name, so his people call him “Virginia” in a running gag that gets a little old, but is still pretty funny.

WORST LINE: “Will you stay … and fight for Helium?” Dejah asks John, referring to the civilized city-state of her home. I kind of wish the characters used squeaky voices every time they mention Helium.

BODY COUNT: John Carter would be a bloodbath, except that there’s almost no visible blood, except for the giant apes’ blue ichor. A cavalryman shoots a Native American in an early Wild Western scene. Several villains get dismembered, mostly off-camera. So many Martians die in explosions and massacres that there’s at least two shots of corpses in piles.

FASHION STATEMENT: Dejah’s a scientist, but eschews white lab coats for spangly harem-wear that keeps her belly button visible. Her father (Ciaran Hinds), the leader of Helium, sports a facial tattoo and what looks like Roman armor made of model airplane wings. By the way, John Carter spends most the film in a Tarzan-style loincloth, ladies.

POP LINEAGE: Speaking of Tarzan, the John Carter books were written nearly 100 years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also created the more popular ape-man. John Carter’s pulpy derring-do inspired Flash Gordon and the other 1930s’ serials, which in turn inspired the Star Wars movies, not to mention the human-goes-native plot of Avatar. John Carter never matches the thrills of Avatar or the breezy fun of Flash Gordon.

TECHNICAL LINEAGE: Director/co-writer Andrew Stanton helmed the hits Finding Nemo and WALL-E, and John Carter’s best scenes retain that Pixar sense of comic timing, like when John proves a pain-in-the-ass as a cavalry prisoner, or Tars Tarkus dope-slaps John for a dumb decision

HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: Not to overthink this, but the film establishes a framing device in which John’s nephew, a young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reads John’s journal about his adventures. So why does the film include so many scenes where John wasn’t present?

THE BOTTOM LINE: “Friday Night Lights’” Taylor Kitsch brings laid-back charisma to a role that the film can’t seem to decide is a tortured hero or a charming rogue. John Carter proves too silly and rushed to work as a respectable fantasy epic, but too heavy and convoluted to achieve pure escapism. Stanton delivers astounding visual effects, including the hero’s ability to make incredible jumps in the Martian gravity, but John Carter has a harder time getting off the ground.

John Carter. 2 stars. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., March 9. At area theaters.

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