‘John Carter’: Critics not over the moon for Mars action epic
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One of the big questions raised by the new science-fantasy adventure “John Carter,” based on the old pulp stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and starring Taylor Kitsch (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) as a Civil War hero transplanted to Mars, is whether director Andrew Stanton (Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”) and his team could bring something new to an old and influential story. For movie critics, reactions have been mixed.
The Times’ own Betsy Sharkey describes the film as “hit and miss, and miss, and miss.” Sharkey laments that “a great story” has been “badly sucked dry” and that “Stanton can’t find a way to make Burroughs’ now-familiar fantasy themes feel fresh.” Part of the difficulty, Sharkey notes, is that so many films have already mined Burroughs’ work over the years: “ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Avatar,’ ‘Superman,’ to name just a few.” And unlike Kitsch’s movie counterpart, the actor does not manage to save the day — so effective on “Friday Night Lights,” he “simply fades here,” Sharkey says.
In the New York Times, A.O. Scott offers a more positive review, calling the film “messy and chaotic … but also colorful and kind of fun.” Scott compliments the film’s look and sound, writing that “the Pixar touch is evident in the precision of the visual detail and in the wit and energy of Michael Giacchino’s score,” but he also notes that the level of polish is incongruous with “John Carter’s” B-movie DNA. “The movie eagerly sells itself as semitrashy, almost-campy fun,” Scott writes, “but it is so lavish and fussy that you can’t help thinking that it wants to be taken seriously.”
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle finds “John Carter” to be mostly empty spectacle. The highlight for LaSalle, if you can call it that, is Lynn Collins, who plays a Barsoomian (that is, Martian) princess: “Collins refuses to give up or give in to the reality that she is in a mediocre action movie, and instead plays every scene for every drop of truth and drama that she can. It’s a losing battle, but she does it with considerable skill.” On the other hand, “all Taylor Kitsch does is grunt, growl and smolder for the camera.”
For Slate’s Dana Stevens, “John Carter” is flawed but fun; she characterizes it as “a strange, at times misshapen, but somehow lovable thing.” Though the film starts slowly with not one but two framing stories, Stevens says the middle section picks up the pace. There are fantastic yet old-fashioned creatures and “Burroughsian lingo” aplenty, and “at its best, ‘John Carter’ resembles the kind of movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was made to pay homage to, a rollicking, pleasantly predictable Saturday-afternoon serial.”
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post would disagree; she pans the film as this year’s “first big flop” and says it “seems to exist primarily to remind viewers of older, better movies.” Hornaday doesn’t stop there, calling “John Carter” “narratively stilted, visually ugly and imaginatively bankrupt.” The only glimmers of praise in Hornaday’s review go to supporting actors Ciaran Hinds (as a good-guy leader) and Mark Strong (as a meddling villain), neither of whom can save the film “from collapsing in on itself like a dead star.”
One of the more glowing reviews comes from the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, who writes, “ ‘John Carter’ only appears to be a $250 million space turkey named after a chartered accountant.” He continues: “Against the odds, ‘John Carter’ is itself pretty amazing — an epic pulp saga that slowly rises to the level of its best imitations and wins you over by degrees.” Whether the film’s familiar genre conventions are cribbed from Burroughs’ source material or other sci-fi films is ultimately immaterial, Burr argues. The filmmakers “have the confidence that their story will work (it does) and that its roots are strong enough to sustain our attention for the first or the umpteenth time.”
Whether and when audiences will see John Carter on the big screen again remain to be seen, but one thing they can count on is that his and Burroughs’ legacy of out-of-this-world adventure isn’t going anywhere.
— Oliver Gettell