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Film review: Sci-fi flick 'John Carter' fails be be out-of-this world

March 12, 2012|By BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • In this film image released by Disney, Taylor Kitsch is shown in a scene from "John Carter."
AP photo

I feel sorry for Mars. It's been at the center of so many bad movies over the past decade or so. 2000 saw a pair of immense disappointments in "Mission to Mars" and "Red Planet." There was an animated flop last year called "Mars Needs Moms." It was also the setting for the most boring parts of "Watchmen." Now it's the setting for "John Carter" a film whose box office performance is already a punchline.

Perhaps the marketing people knew that Mars is box office poison, that's why they made the last-minute decision to change the film's title from "John Carter of Mars" to just "John Carter." Now all that people can tell about the film from its title is the name of the main character. I've also noticed that a lot of people confuse this name with John Conner, and mistakenly think that the film is part of the "Terminator" franchise. I guess the film is grateful to have this audience because it needs all the help it can get.

In the film, John Carter ( Taylor Kitsch of "Friday Night Lights") is a loser Civil War veteran on a quest for a cave of gold. The cave turns out to be a portal to Mars, where the local creatures don't know what to make of him. The species does its best to stay out of a war between the planet's humans, even though the evil side will probably go after them once they've eliminated the good. The only person who can return Carter to Earth is Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) of the good humans, who is set to marry the leader of the bad guys in a sham wedding. Carter is forced to step up to protect "people" he barely knows, yet have so much to teach him about himself.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the film is its reliance on made-up words. The locals refer to the planet as "Barsoom" instead of Mars, the characters themselves have strange names, and there are plenty of unique terms for places and objects. The confusing language makes the action hard to follow and the whole film unnecessarily complicated. By the way, I didn't have this problem last week when I saw the movie based on a Dr. Seuss book, and he's best known for using made-up words. Another confusing aspect of the film is that the characters from the main alien species all look alike. And I mean all of them — the males are indistinguishable from the females.

The film does one thing right, and it quickly squanders the opportunity. When he first arrives on Mars, Carter has trouble adjusting to the planet's gravity. There's a funny sequence where he repeatedly flops, floats, soars and crash-lands. But all too soon he gets the hang of walking and stays pretty much on his feet for the rest of the film, save for a few scenes where he's required to jump high. Imagine the possibilities if he struggled with gravity for the whole film. It would be funny to see him try to carry on a standard conversation while involuntarily doing flips in midair.

I think the main thing that makes "John Carter" uninteresting is that we don't get a feel for any of the cultures on Mars. We're told which characters we're supposed to root for, but we don't know exactly what makes them the good guys. Even if we did, we wouldn't care because we wouldn't remember their names. Except for John Carter of course, that name is easy to remember. We'll all remember the name of "John Carter," one of the lousiest films of the year.



One and a Half Stars out of Five.



"John Carter is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action. Its running time is 132 minutes.



Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.

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