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John Carter A Familiar Movie, Done Passably

John Carter
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from the novel Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Disney, 2012

It doesn’t always work out.  You get a celebrated Pixar director (Stanton, who made Finding Nemo and WALL-E) making his first live-action film, much like Brad Bird did with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol a few months ago, you even hire a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Michael Chabon) to help with the screenplay, a man who also worked on the fantastic Spider-Man 2, and you get the huge Disney marketing machine behind your film, and it’s no guarantee for success.

John Carter is a huge special effects film that despite the creativity involved, despite the story being nearly 100 years old and predating every movie you can think of that it looks like…just ends up looking like all the movies you can think of.  For instance: Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Avatar (itself derivative like crazy), Prince of Persia, and Gladiator.  What is in this movie that I can recommend, other than if you liked those movies, you’ll probably like this one?  Or maybe this will stoke your fire: At least it’s better than Prince of Persia and Avatar and the Star Wars prequels.

John Carter (Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch) is living his adventurous 1880’s life, looking for gold, being chased by the US Army because they need all the help they can get fighting Apaches.  During an escape from said Army and Apaches, Carter finds himself in a cave, where someone futuristic-looking magically appears and tries to kill him.  The assailant has a medallion that transports Carter to Mars, where he finds out that with the new gravity, he can jump like Superman.

On Mars, there’s a battle being waged between two peoples.  We know Sab Than (Dominic West, required to play the bad guy) is the bad guy, he was given some sort of blue meshy thing by chief bad guy Matai Shang (Mark Strong, also required to play bad guys) to be the ultimate warrior.  The blue meshy thing gives Sab Than all sorts of power, but his master is Shang, who wants Than to marry the princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (pretty smokin’ Lynn Collins), for some ultimate reason we’ll find out in the third act.  Dejah’s dad (Ciaran Hinds, required to be in everything) has already made the deal, despite Dejah really, really hating Sab Than because he’s a dick and probably bad in bed.

Carter finds himself with the Helium people, a very tall green race with tusks around their cheeks.  There’s some sort of interesting story here I guess…the relationship of a man (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and his daughter (Samantha Morton), where familial relationships have pretty much gone by the wayside in a society that sends eggs off to be hatched in remote locations.  Anyway, they obviously represent the Native Americans and thus white man Carter will become one of them somehow.  He also runs into Dejah and Dejah will become smitten by Carter’s ability to jump around and kill her enemies.  Together, Dejah and Carter try to figure out the mysteries of How to Transport Between Worlds.  So, will Dejah marry Than, will Shang get what he wants (which by the way, is so convoluted and unnecessary it makes your head hurt), will John Carter get back home, will he want to go back home?

John Carter plays well as far as action is concerned, but the characters are of that one-dimensional variety.  There seems to be an attempt to make Carter a Han Solo type of character, but he definitely doesn’t have the rogue charm.  We know he cares about the plights of other people way too soon.  Dejah is hot, and can kick ass, and she’s fiercely independent, but we know these warrior princesses inside and out by now.  All the villains are typical, stupid villains played by good actors with nothing to do.  The CGI keeps chugging along looking way too bright.  Can someone please ugly down the colors in the palettes of these things?  The Helium race is what really makes people think the Star Wars prequels, and the reason Star Wars came so immediately to mind is those prequels’ over-CGI’d backgrounds and characters.  We knew what we were watching was fake, inhuman, and cold.  The little doggy-like character that becomes John Carter’s best friend is probably the best part of the CGI-fest, and really the only remnant of Stanton’s Pixar influence in the movie, but even a character like that loses a lot in translation when we know a computer did it.

In all, we’ve seen better, we’ve seen worse, but we’ve seen it thousands of times.

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