A Princess of Mars, by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, 2012's John Carter made headlines for all the wrong sort of reasons. Budgeted for around $250 million, it tanked in America, making around $75. It succeeded overseas and other markets, helping regain some of its losses (barely). So what happened? I don't know for sure. I loved the first hour, and yeah, there's also a second hour....unfortunately.
A Civil War veteran from Virginia, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is searching the Arizona desert for a cave that legend states is packed with gold. Pursued by Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry, Carter finds the cave only to be transported to a different planet. He knows it as Mars, but there he finds a race/species of 12-foot tall barbarians called Tharks. Carter discovers he has the ability to physically leap hundreds of feet into the air at will, impressing the Tharks with his prowess. Trying to discover how, why and where he is though, Carter finds himself involved and fighting in another war as warring factions fight for control of this supposedly dead, far-off planet.
I didn't go into this Andrew Stanton-directed science fiction-fantasy-western-epic with high expectations, but I was certainly curious to see what the fuss (or lack of) was all about. The genre-bending premise sounded intriguing. Early on, I loved it. 'Carter' was like a blend of Star Wars, Avatar and Dances With Wolves. How's that for a deadly trio of films? The exploration of a "new" planet was great, seeing the disbelief in John's eyes as we do the same. It's somewhat like Earth, but not quite. We meet a new race/species -- the Tharks -- and see their culture and way of life. We see warring factions -- the people of Helium vs. the fighters of Zodanga -- and John must come around with how he fits into it all. Is he willing to fight again, to fight for something that doesn't impact him?
That's the first hour. I loved it. Those scenes especially reminded me of the things I liked most about James Cameron's Avatar. And then there's the rest of the movie. A visual spectacle, a treat for the eyes, a genre-bending story, and you know what? I didn't care. I was bored. I had no interest in this war for control of Mars. None. The last 70 minutes therefore tended to drag for me. I don't know how/why it all changed so quickly, but it did. While I liked Kitsch's John Carter, I didn't have a whole lot of interest in his plight, much less that of the Helium survivors vs. the Zodanga city-state. A battle for sole power of a planet? It should have been cooler, but I would have just settled for even a little interesting.
Just 31 years old, Kitsch is trying to carve out a niche for himself as an actor and movie star. This is a good part in that direction. A tad wooden at times, I liked his performance although I could have done with more in the way of flashbacks. Lynn Collins plays the love interest, Dejah, the princess of the King of Helium (Ciaran Hinds). Collins is quite the heroine -- no damsel in distress -- and looks good doing it, but she doesn't have much chemistry with Kitsch. As for the Tharks, look for Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton lending their voice talents. Mark Strong plays Matai Shang, a space-manipulating being who leads destruction of planets one-by-one. Also look for Dominic West, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston in supporting parts. West has some fun hamming it up as the villainous Sab Than, the puppet for Matai's intentions.
A swing and a miss here for the most part. A framing device with John's nephew, the future author Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), is a great introduction and gets things moving well enough. The movie is gorgeous, New Mexico and Utah combining with some impressive CGI to stand in for Mars. Michael Giacchino's score is appropriately epic, and in general, the movie has the feel of an epic from the 1950s/1960s albeit with some great CGI. On the whole, the movie never connects on any sort of emotional level. The first hour though is highly enjoyable, making it worth at least a mild -- very mild -- recommendation.
John Carter <---trailer (2012): ** 1/2 /****