Saturday, March 03, 2012

JOHN CARTER - Opulent But Rather Disappointing

JOHN CARTER (sci-fi adventure)
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Thomas Hayden Church and Willem Dafoe   
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon from novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Time: 138 mins
Rating: *  *  1/2  (out of 4)

Collins, Kitsch and a Thark

PREAMBLE: Every once in a while, we get a movie that makes everyone in the film industry sit up and take notice. This time around, it is John Carter, Disney's US$250 million (RM750 million) effort that has been causing one controversy after another - including rumours of costs overruns and bad marketing. At US$250, it is arguably one of the Top Five Most Expensive films to date (after Pirates Of The Caribbean At World's End, Tangled, Spider-Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), and as a non-franchise film, it is sure testing the box-office waters with lots of fingers crossed. I will even call it Disney's biggest gamble of the year.

After sitting through its media screening at the Sunway Pyramid TGV Imax cineplex in Petaling Jaya, I am doubtful that it will be as hot a hit as the above-mentioned expensive blockbusters. It is likely to open with a big bang (probably over US$50 million at US box-office) before word-of-mouth takes it to the back-burner where it takes a longer time to recoup its costs. On the other hand, it may go the way of The Green Lantern, last year's flop.

Ciaran Hinds and Lynn Collins

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Based on A Princess of Mars, the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 11-volume Barsoom novels, this is the story of war-weary, former US Calvary captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) whose search for a cave of gold inexplicably transports him to Mars where he becomes embroiled in an epic conflict amongst the planet's inhabitants. Basically, there are main three 'races' involved in the Martian civil war - the greenish, four-handed and tusked giants called Tharks; the humanoid Zodangas, and the Roman-like Heliumites. 

To complicate matters is a group of shape-changing beings called Therns who manipulate the war for their own ends. The Therns give Zodanga’s ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West) a powerful weapon known as the Ninth Ray, forcing the Helium king Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) to offer his daughter Dejah Thoris' (Lynn Collins) hand in marriage to the brutish Sab Than. Dejah, of course, is not keen on this marriage of convenience and she escapes and meets JC.

HITS & MISSES: Burroughs' John Carter tales pre-date those of Tarzan. Here, in this 'origin movie', Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara) is shown as John Carter's nephew and heir who arrives at Carter's English mansion to sort out some matters. This device gives the narrative an extra dimension that should boost its credibility. However, as a fantasy film, credibility is the least of the its problems.

The Barsoom (or Martian) sequences are visually spectacular (especially in IMAX 3D), reminding us of the exotic locales of Star Wars and even Avatar's Pandora. The six-limbed Tharks are a sight to behold although we can hardly differentiate the males from the females. However, these sequences are emotionally barren and uninvolving. Who do we root for when the Martians battle one another in fancy winged air-ships?

Director Andrew Stanton (who gave us WALL-E and Finding Nemo) throws us into the swashbuckling action without prepping us with some plot build-up. But then, even the climactic battle is a blur of clashes because it is difficult to tell the Zodangas from the Heliumites.

The plot about Barsoom's civil strife is familiar, outdated and overtaken by other sci-fi tales (especially so since Burroughs' novels are a hundred years old). The massive budget has allowed Stanton to put emphasis on the creatures and sets but the narrative has not been improved to make Burroughs adventure more cohesive. While some events on Barsoom appear complicated and confusing, others look derivative of Star Wars and Dune. There are few attempts at humour - the most obvious is by Woola, the ugly-cute Martian dog that is JC's sidekick. It provides the few laughs in the movie and should be the favourite character of kids in the audience.

The muscular Kitsch is energetic and handsome as the title hero known in Barsoom for his gravity-defying leaps. However, he lacks chemistry with Collins' Dejah Thoris and their romance seems implied and rushed. Collins, on the other hand, is solid as the feisty princess with both beauty and brains. She dominates the screen whenever she appears. Sans its massive budget worries, John Carter would have been a passable sci-fi swashbuckler. With them, it may attract more criticism than accolade.

THE LOWDOWN: Opulent and stylish but ultimately disappointing.


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