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‘John Carter’ new for Disney, old for sci-fi

Disney’s new film, “John Carter,” has been promoted in trailers and television ads as the precursor to every other sci-fi epic.

The film is based on the book “John Carter of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which was one of the first in the genre of sci-fi adventure. So if “John Carter” is the original space opera, why does this film feel so clichéd?

The movie is about an ex-Confederate soldier, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) who finds himself transported to Mars, or Barsoom, as it’s referred to by its residents. Barsoom is not so different from the Earth Carter has left behind, in that it’s engaged in a bloody civil war.

“John Carter” is filled with action and spectacle, however there’s very little substance backing it up. Much of the second act is spent on scenes between Carter and a beautiful princess of Mars (Lynn Collins). She wants him to help save her people and Barsoom. But there doesn’t seem to be a real reason behind this, other than the stereotypical reason that he is the main character so he has to have something to do.

The biggest problem with “John Carter” is its failure to provide the ‘why,’ as well as the ‘what’ and ‘how’. For instance, the film’s villains are mysterious, God-like beings who roam from planet to planet, overseeing the destruction of various civilizations. But even the destruction of whole worlds doesn’t come across as terrible and important. It’s all so vague that it doesn’t seem to matter.

While the film lacks a driving force, it has a lot of other admirable traits. It’s directed by Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s resident geniuses. The narrative faults in “John Carter” may simply be the result of an animation director working on his first live-action movie. Whatever the reason, Stanton drops the ball in the storytelling department.

However, the film is filled with little touches that make it all more enjoyable. Like a Pixar film, there are many little moments that aren’t necessary to the plot but simply add to the flavor of the film. Fortunately, for a movie with a sketchily-written plot, the characters are compelling.

The highlight of the film is John Carter’s first Barsoomian comrade, Tars Tarkas. Tarkas is a combination of computer-generated effects and Willem Dafoe’s performance. The other Barsoomians are played with great aplomb by many good actors but Dafoe steals the whole movie. The fact that Dafoe may actually be an alien is certainly why he’s so good in the role.

Of course when a movie is titled by the name of the main character, it’s important that the person playing the role be just as good. Kitsch, best known from the show “Friday Night Lights,” is convincing in the role, as almost a strange cross between Clint Eastwood and James Franco. The character of Carter has influenced countless sci-fi heroes, from Flash Gordon to Jake Sully. It’s a character everyone has seen before – the antihero who becomes a reluctant hero before finally becoming just a regular hero.

Like the character of Carter, everything about the film is familiar and clichéd. In the 100 years since Burroughs created him, John Carter has been copied by countless other science-fiction writers and filmmakers. The ideas in the film aren’t unimaginative; it’s just that in the time it took Hollywood to make a movie about Burroughs’ world, they were put into other films.

“John Carter” may be clichéd and feel unoriginal (despite being the most original), but it’s still enjoyable. Despite a very boring second act, “John Carter” remains exciting for most of its two-hour running time. It also features a brilliant score by Michael Giacchino who is quickly becoming the next John Williams. If the rest of the movie had lived up to Giacchino’s score, “John Carter” would be a true spectacle rather than a solid but underwhelming action movie.

Danny Marchant can be reached at dmmarcha@student.umass.edu.

 

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