John Carter (2012)
"Transplanted to Mars, a Civil War vet discovers a lush planet inhabited by 12-foot tall barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter a princess who is in desperate need of a savior."
Discovers a lush planet? I sure as heck hope you aren't talking about plant life description, because I think you could find more plant life in the middle of a crowded city! Aside from a description that is slightly misleading as to the color palette you will be feasting your eyes upon for the entirety of the movie, this little guy received very little box-office presence, but was it rightfully lost in a crowd of movies or just another casualty of a nit-picky audience that refuses to enjoy something made for entertainment? You may not have some cute space-dog to guide you like the wind, but stay with me and find out.
Admittedly, the story of John Carter has been around for years before this movie ever came into existence, and no doubt many a fan out there could tell you more about how faithful or blasphemous this film is in comparison to those stories. I, however, cannot tell you these things - the only reason I admittedly even know of it's previous existence is thanks to a "100 years in the making" featurette on the disc. Instead, this will have to be regrettably presented to you solely from the movie-viewer side of things, as in this case that is all I can manage to be. If anyone does happen to know anything of the pre-existing content, I would urge you to leave a comment in relation to it, as no doubt inquiring minds would like to know!
We have a bit of a time jump at the very start of the movie - one that is later returned to at the end. It's a bit of a classic story telling method, where-in we begin with a story in progress and then cut to the past to explain the portion we started with - and it works rather well most of the time it is used. We follow one John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he eludes a man who is (for whatever reason) following him, so that he may send a letter. Queue the arrival of his nephew, who always believed his uncle John's stories, and in turn finds himself left with the entirety of his rather wealthy uncle's estate and belongings as he is now dead. Some explanatory and story building things latter, the nephew starts reading the story given to him by his uncle (in fact the story of the movie) that takes us back to when it all started...
Some time earlier, we find John in search of a cave full of gold in Virginia This search is interrupted by one General Powell, whose goal is to re-recruit John to his cause (aiding in dealing with those pesky natives) , and leads to some humorous escape antics on John's part. When one final attempt leads the pursuing cavalry into a group of said natives, things get violent with a heroic John rescuing an injured Powell (from what one would assume is a bit of guilt) and riding off to hide in a cave - which the natives refuse to go near. Turns out, John has found his cave of gold - only to be interrupted by some strange person popping out of nowhere and attacking him - after shooting the man in defense, John picks up the amulet he was wearing, and mimics his dying words that just so happens to be a means of transportation.
Enter Mars! Alright, thats a slight lie, as we are introduced to a snippet of mars before much of that ever happens (the start explains the mars political situation, and shows the "bad guy" Sab Than (Dominic West) getting granted some form of super weapon by Matai Shang (Mark Strong). This is the point where we hit Mars proper - where the main story is focused and the plot becomes apparent. It's a straightforward plot that has serviced many a media form for years with great results: Save the girl, save the world.
John starts off on this lush (if you call a desert lush) planet by discovering lower gravity, and promptly running into some four armed aliens named Tharks - specifically Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) who happens to be the leader. Some things go down, we are reintroduced to the concept of Sab being the "bad guy" with a plot that involves marrying Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who, in her attempt to escape her proposed marriage, ends up having her ship shot down near where the Tharkas are living. John, being a good guy, literally jumps to the aid of the falling princess Dejah, who then promptly shows him that Mars girls know how to use swords better than earthmen.
After getting in (more) trouble with the Tharkas by going to a forbidden temple to learn about why he is there (kind of), both Dejah and John as well as friendly Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) get sentenced to some pit fighting (at which point we discover that Sola is suspected to be the child of Tars, who then allows them all to escape as long as John keeps Sola safe by taking Sola with him). The three then whisk off (with a strange space-dog that has taken a liking to John during his 'stay' with the Tharkas) towards the goal of getting John home.
Now, long story short (if you want the entire thing, go watch the movie), stuff happens, John must make a decision between his cave of gold or staying on Mars with the new love interest (we find he already had one on earth through flashbacks, but she and his child died and he blames himself for not showing up sooner), and how he unites the "good guy" martians and Tharkas against the "bad guy" martians. It's a classic hero story - one that we see time and time again told in movies, books, and games. It's nothing new to us these days as we are so accustomed to it, but if the 'making of' featurette is to be believed, then we may very well have this story to thank for many a sci-fi and fantasy to come years later (including this movie).
Now that I spent much more time talking about the plot and story then I had intended too, lets get on to other things shall we? As far as characters go, there is a multitude of layers to a good number of characters throughout, although some are much more plain and lacking then others. John himself we are revealed more about through not only his choices and actions, but through flashbacks as well. The princess may seem to be a generic "damsel in distress" Disney affair at first glance, but that she is skilled and willing to fight for what she believes best for her world makes her more than just a stereotypical "pretty face in the crowd" thats used as a simple reason for things to happen. Sola and Tars are given depth through their suspected relationship and Tars uncharacteristic compassion, and our main evil character has a nice little monologue to stop him from being so ungodly cryptic and become a little more fleshed out (without giving away everything). One could argue that the story is in fact a character driven tale of John Carter, where the warring of the inhabitants of Mars is just a backdrop type of "crucible" with which his character develops.
The costume design here is excellent, allowing things to look both recognizable and yet alien. This is no better illustrated than by the space-dog creature, which is immediately recognizable as some form of dog - in space! There are a few moments when the many red tattoos of the Martian human-races lead to discrepancies (such as appearing on the wrong side) but they do also help again add that foreign flare to the characters. Clothing here is incredibly elaborate at times (draw dropping one might argue), even when for the most part one could hardly consider most of what is shown to be more than the space equivalent of He-Man's attire. The Alien CG is also well down, coming off as fluid enough to be realistic even when the creatures themselves noticeably aren't.
The environments, on the other hand, are probably the biggest downfall of this movie. Much like olden-day westerns, the exterior set pieces leave a lot to be desired, unless you really enjoy barren desert. The two main Martian-human cities are exquisite in design, one war-like crawler and one very fancy and peaceful. The few times we are placed within these cities, things become a bit more interesting to look at - which is why it's so unfortunate that we don't see more of these places. If anything was to turn someone off, its the deserted landscape of Mars that I would imagine did it the most - despite the technological wonders of flying ships and the cities, when you've seen one desert you have generally seen them all.
The soundtrack here does it's job well, although in my typical fashion I really can't say that I walked away from it with any stuck in my head in name or tune. Given, however, that it adds to the mood adequately during the movie without detracting from the experience at all, I would say it has done a successful job. Audio is also delivered well, with the actors doing a wonderful job (including the parts before John can understand Martian language), and you do get that sense of emotion you would want from a movie that has a romance sub-plot in it.
In all honesty, I don't know why this movie was so ill receive. It might have been the setting of Mars turned many off to it, as it does seem that movies based on Mars seem to have a relatively low appreciation rate (must be that bland desert backdrop). The action holds up as being well done, and the quality of the movie is far above that of many other movies I have seen, so it shouldn't be that either. Perhaps it's just the fact that the story doesn't offer anyone from this generation anything we haven't already grown up with that caused the movie to have such a hard time? Truth be told, regardless of what others might have avoided this flick for, I certainly don't regret watching it - I just regret that such a low turn out, we probably will never get to see the potential of the movies that would have come after this very much introductory movie to something that has impressed people in a time long, long ago.