First John Carter Reviews: A Flawed But Worthwhile Epic?
Negative speculation and prognostication has been brewing for months for Disney's sci-fi actioner John Carter thanks to dismal tracking and rumors of bloated budgets, but Disney's finally released their review embargo for the March 9 would-be blockbuster. So what's the early buzz from the first critiques of Andrew Stanton's take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs saga, about a Civil War veteran named John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) who lands in the middle of a civil war on Mars?
Given the naysaying hype, the first batch of reviews are surprisingly... positive. Well, mixed positive, for the most part -- critics agree on many of the film's strengths, from the well-crafted CG world of Barsoom (that's Mars, to us humans) to the spirited action sequences Pixar veteran Stanton has pulled off. (Look for Movieline's John Carter review to post next week.)
"Some of the stuff that Stanton pulls off in John Carter is mind-blowing," enthuses Badass Digest's Devin Faraci. "There are a few sequences that feel simply classic, like we’ll be referring to them for years to come. There’s one scene, where John Carter stands alone (well, with Woola) against a rampaging army of nine foot tall, four armed Tharks, that is an all-timer."
Speaking of those Tharks -- the four-armed green Martian warriors that first enslave John Carter and force him to fight for them -- Stanton's CG background directing Finding Nemo and Wall-E seems to have helped him create believable, dimensional characters with a combination of CG animation and performance capture.
HitFix's Drew McWeeney was particularly impressed by the CG-heavy characters. "The Tharks, led here by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), are compelling creations," he writes. "By a few scenes into their time onscreen, I stopped thinking about the technical trick involved in bringing them to life and simply accepted them as real."
Meanwhile, actress Lynn Collins drew high marks for her portrayal of Martian princess Dejah Thoris, a science-minded warrior princess who serves as Carter's romantic foil while holding her own with her smarts and her sword. "Lynn Collins’s feisty Dejah Thoris is the best kick-ass sci-fi princess since Leia, and she looks stunning too with her Martian tattoos," says SFX Magazine.
In addition to potentially launching young teenage boys into puberty with her sensual, revealing costumes (the skimpiness of which Dejah at least acknowledges with a wink), she's one of the better-written and unusually strong female characters to come along in genre filmmaking in a while. Or, as Faraci declares: "Dejah Thoris is the best female character in science fiction/fantasy cinema since Ripley."
But the critics also agree where John Carter's flaws are concerned -- for instance, the sprawling, often-unwieldy scope of its story and the clumsy way in which Stanton and Co. filter it down to a dense (maybe too-dense) feature-length runtime. Part of the problem lies in compacting Burroughs' Princess of Mars novel down to one feature-length script while juggling the many moving parts -- John Carter's Civil War past, the mechanics of his Mars-aided powers, the political machinations between the two warring city-states of Zodanga and Helium, the omnipotent Tharks who walk among them pulling the strings, the warrior culture of the Tharks, and an Earth-bound framing device involving Carter's nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, phew! -- while additionally attempting to set the stage for sequels to come.
"Amidst the CGI environments and constant plot machinations, the story veers between interesting, boring and borderline incomprehensible," said Fan the Fire Magazine. "There are moments when the film soars, only to stall and sputter on a well-meaning but extraneous –- or overlong -– character moment," complains SFX Magazine, adding that "lengthy exposition scenes and Martian politics are hampered by cod pomposity and the dreaded 'silly-made-up-sci-fi-words' disease."
Ultimately, if audiences react as CinemaBlend's Sean O'Connell did, Disney's biggest problem on March 9 will reflect its early tracking woes from weeks ago: Viewer indifference. "The bulk of Carter [is] a tough slog, despite some decent performances and the admirable introduction of a tough-as-nails action heroine in Collins," O'Connell writes. "Arid, barren Barsoom is a dull environment for a sci-fi blockbuster, and the consequences of the conflicts happening on screen are small. John Carter just never pulled me in."