Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

When I look back at all the movies that have come out over the years that people were comparing in some way to Star Wars, it really adds up. Especially if you’re counting all the movies people have specifically said, “It’s the Star Wars of our generation.” With John Carter coming out tomorrow, certain sources say that according to George Lucas himself, without John Carter, there would be no Star Wars. Well, I’ve seen John Carter and if you’re looking for a new Star Wars at all, you’ll still be looking. Not that it’s bad; it’s just not that good.

The title character is a former Confederate soldier, living in 1881, mining for gold in an area that makes others believe he’s wasting his time. But after a strange device in Carter’s searching grounds transport him to what we know as Mars, he’ll not only find it difficult to get home, but the natives there on all sides want his help in winning their war against each other. Aliens armies, monsters and a Martian princess will make his trek all the more deadly as Carter figures out whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of one.

If you were interested from the trailer of JCOM, you’ll get some amusement out of this. There’s plenty of humor for a younger audience to grasp while it strays away from childish laughs; alien creatures farting and the like. And at the same time, the story allows Carter to come into contact with massive alien apes to fight, as well an battalion of soldiers (taking them all on singlehandedly). Mars’ gravity not being the same as Earth’s, that also gives Carter a chance to exercise a unique ability that the locals to Mars don’t possess, making him superpowered in a way, while making his arrival to the Willem Dafoe voiced alien and the Martian Princess (Lynn Collins) seem all the more foreshadowing. Mark Strong is, surprise surprise, playing to his strengths here by becoming another shadowy overlord of a Dark City (1998) or Adjustment Bureau (2011)-like quality to his character. Honestly, how can a director go wrong with Mark Strong as a villain? Even when the movie isn’t good, Strong is still… a stand out performer. No, I refuse to say “strong” to describe his acting. I just ain’t gonna do it, no matter how easy it is. Green Lantern (2011) and Robin Hood (2010) both exemplify my point in Strong’s ability to help create a character that’s watchable even when the movie isn’t. But once again, it’s not as though this movie isn’t watchable; just too many familiar landscapes without creating a new path of it’s own.

From the time Carter arrives on Mars to the time that the movie is over, I felt like I knew what was going to happen. Every time they introduced a new character or plot device, I’d seen it all before. They seem to be taking a page out of Avatar’s book in this sense, right down to the funny-looking alien dog. “Oh, sure, you recognize this as a dog…but it’s not! Because it’s head is big and it has six legs!” The particular creature I’m speaking of made me think of the Brain Bug from Starship Troopers (1997). Imagine that thing as a pet. Gross. I’m all for keeping with legendary archetypes. It’s what makes films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings so great. But this seemed like it was made to be one of those movies, not to make it’s own mark. By the end, I could already hear producers screaming “PLEASE! GIVE US A SEQUEL!”

And it kind of makes me disappointed in a way. I wasn’t especially looking forward to this movie, but after reading up on the origins of the character, finding out it’s from the same mind of the man who created Tarzan and the fact that all of it’s old promo art bares a resemblance to Conan the Barbarian, as well as other pulp art with the kind of scenarios that make you say “Jeez, how’d they even get in that situation?”, it made me wish they had dug deeper on this one. Particularly when I read this had been a struggle to get made for about twenty to thirty years. That’s when I started to feel like we’ll never have our own Star Wars because few film makers want to stray from the formula to make something that’s unique and makes money. Looking at the art alone, I’m a little surprised it was made at all, unless of course it was pitched with the idea of a new Star Wars in mind. But even after all that, the story is only one of two major problems in this film.

When I first came across the actor known as Taylor Kitsch, it was in the 2006 travesty known as The Covenant, where he hung around in locker rooms (no pun) with other guys dressed in as little clothing as him. The only thing that kept me from hating him was “knowing” that I would never have to see him again in any movies I actually wanted to see. But for some reason, Hollywood has chosen their next leading star in the man called Kitsch. With this and Battleship coming out in a couple months, it’s clear who the next idol-to-be is and in all seriousness, the only difference between this guy and Channing Tatum is that this guy seems to be involved in the actual film, not giving a dead-eyed stare into space for two hours. But to be better than Channing Tatum isn’t enough. When I read that he was chosen for the part partly because Sean Connery in Dr. No and Harrison Ford in Raiders were the same age as Kitsch is now (29 or so), I became a little annoyed that they would so callously compare him to classic actors playing such amazing characters. And they have him adhere to the age old tactic of “If you see an alien- PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE!” I don’t want to attack this man’s character personally (I don’t know him anyway) so I’ll just stick with one scene, where he encourages his younger nephew in the film to do something with his life, to take up a cause, to go on an adventure… his voice being no different than when some pothead at work tells you that last night was an “epic party.” Come on, Hollywood- there are better leading men. Use this picture as a template and go from there, maybe.

Seriously, that man is beating weasels with a weasel.

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong

Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence, runtime 132 mins

Plays like: Cowboys & Aliens (2011), Stargate (1994)

Grade: C- 

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