Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: John Carter

Rating: 12a
Duration: 132 mins

There has been much speculation over Disney's latest movie, not only because it's based on a character from a science fiction novel series, but it's also helmed by Pixar veteran, Andrew Stanton; taking his first leap into live-action. With a $250m budget, the marketing has been somewhat tame; a name change removing 'of Mars' from the already plain title perhaps hasn't helped, but surely the powerhouse combo of Disney and Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E) is enough to generate buzz?

Initially a veteran of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he encounters alien races and all sorts of crazy antics that oddly don't seem to faze him in the slightest. Aside from a few moments of gravitational uncertainty, Mr. Carter is psychologically unaffected, having been plonked onto a strange, distant planet, as he interacts with various alien-types as well as their mind-blowing technology. All in a day's work for our hero it would seem, until various conflicts come into play: these involve being taken prisoner (on more than one occasion), only for him to break free and embark on his own selfless quest to save Dejah (Lynn Collins); a fearless warrior Princess who is being pressured to marry the evil Sab (Dominic West), for political reasons. In truth, it's difficult to articulate the plot any more coherently due to the unclear nature in how the narrative is told. 

John Carter, being a Disney film, obviously has some obligatory restrictions: no vulgarity, sex, swearing, or nudity. But with existing source material and an Oscar-winning director in charge, it shouldn't be problem to achieve a family-friendly, enchanting and exciting adventure. Unfortunately, that's not the case here.

Whilst the CGI is well conceived and some settings visually appeal, aesthetically there isn't anything we haven't seen before. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones is the most obvious point of reference, yet tragically the cities and settlements that are visited don't exude any real vastness, resulting in them feeling shallow and disingenuous. Similarly, a lot of the alien character design will appear familiar, too. What’s more, no one - not even Carter himself - provides us with any character depth, and the minute exposition we are privileged to via flashbacks are inconsequential and irrelevant to the context of the plot.

The most difficult aspect to come to terms with is the lack of story. There's a strong argument that there isn't one at all, merely a loose chain of events that vaguely tie a narrative together. Unlike other epic sci-fi adventures, there's no spark to any of the characters, and prove difficult to engage with. More worryingly, the thin plot is exacerbated by what little the audience have to go on, as it's terribly vague and confusing throughout: alternative names for planets; new characters drifting in and out at will; places that are referenced lack the relevant context, all makes you realise about an hour into the film that you haven't the foggiest idea what's actually happening.

The list of supporting actors, including the wonderful Bryan Cranston, as well as Dominic West and Mark Strong are shamefully underused, most notably the former, with a bit-part simply written for what can be described as a cameo. Not one of them is utilised well, and Strong's character is poorly judged.

On a positive note, the CGI may not ooze originality, but at least it's pleasant - if you ignore its influences or the films that are influenced by it - as are the vehicle designs, and architectural concept art is a sight to behold. Indeed, the four-armed species known as the Tharks, as well as the beasts they ride, are nicely visualised as well.

Following recent trend, John is accompanied by an oddly cute Calot (best described as an alien-faced Cheshire cat that resembles a giant pebble with stumpy limbs). This loyal beast, named Woola, follows him round as a makeshift sidekick - as Snowy is to Tintin - and provides some comic relief much like 'comedy goose' does in War Horse

As predicted, the 3D element brings nothing to the experience and, like 99% of '3D' movies, felt lazily implemented in post production affirming but another nail in the coffin for why the format should be buried sooner, rather than later.

VERDICT: In 2012, where modern science fiction adventures need to push the boundaries to satisfy demanding audiences, John Carter fails on most levels. It doesn't sustain the belief, let alone the attention of the viewer, and is too uneventful to engage with its Disney demographic. Regardless of whether the books pre-date the likes of Star Wars, Dune or Avatar, is irrelevant to fickle cinema goers. All people will see is an unoriginal and lacklustre movie that, whilst entertains and visually captures some charm in specific areas, will simply leave you shouting 'next!'