Review by Jason Serafino (@serafinoj1)
After countless false starts and a few decades spent rotting in development hell, John Carter finally hits the big screen today, courtesy of WALL-E director Andrew Stanton and Disney, and it’s hardly the debacle that the trailers and TV spots would have you believe. Instead of being just another listless CGI extravaganza, John Carter succeeds in bringing life, energy, and a touch of old-school Hollywood camp back to theaters.
Unlike the trend of recent blockbusters, John Carter doesn’t try to give audiences a gritty look at the world that Edgar Rice Burroughs brought to life in the 1912 novel, A Princess of Mars, nor does it overload our senses with gratuitous sex and violence. All of that is a welcome change of pace as Stanton delivers a film that is more in-line with 1980’s Flash Gordon or Return of the Jedi, as opposed to Transformers or Avatar. There is a level of tongue-in-cheek humor and cheesiness to this movie that might be jarring at first, but makes perfect sense as it chugs along.
Taylor Kitsch’s performance as Carter himself is a puzzling piece of acting that is simultaneously brilliant and head-scratching. He’s overloaded with testosterone and vein-riddled muscles, but he is also incredibly dim-witted and usually finds himself on the wrong end of a pummeling. Stanton uses Kitsch’s performance to pitch-perfect comedic effect as Carter is often beaten senseless just as he believes he is about to save the day.
Kitsch’s co-star, Lynn Collins, who plays Princess Dejah, brings another memorable performance, although not for many positive reasons. Her intensity and volume often makes it seem like she is acting from a completely different script than Kitsch, as she screams and grunts her way through the entire film. Her delivery of some of the film’s more laughable dialogue is sometimes tough to sit through, especially when it comes to the action scenes. It is initially very off-putting, but eventually her performance becomes yet another piece on the beautiful quilt of campiness that is John Carter.
The rest of the movie is rounded out by solid acting by Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, and a surprisingly deep performance by Mark Strong, who again proves he can play any villain Hollywood throws at him.
But where the movie really separates itself from most others is with its special effects. The world of Barsoom is masterfully crafted with a healthy mix of CGI and excruciatingly detailed practical sets. Even the green four-armed aliens, known as the Tharks, seem life-like as the digital animation blends seamlessly with terrific voice-acting. After a while, it is almost disappointing when these beautiful creatures aren’t on screen as Collins and Kitsch lack the energy to completely pull off the film’s more emotional beats.
The biggest problem with John Carter, though, is its length. At 132 minutes, the movie is simply too long, especially in the middle which just seems to drag for about 20-25 minutes. At points, the film just seems to be buying time before the next action scene; thankfully, all of those parts are pulse-pounding and surprisingly graphic for a Disney film. One part in particular with Carter’s evisceration of a White Ape is very impressive.
John Carter is a throwback to the cheesy sci-fi flicks of yesteryear, and that’s truly meant to be a compliment. It’s filled with good intentions, lots of humor, some talented performances, and thrilling action. For anyone tired of the morose tone that most big budget Hollywood movies have brought to the table, John Carter should remind you how these blockbuster movies should be.