One sentence synopsis: A confederate veteran is transported to Mars and tries to stop an evil warlord and his shadowy backers.
Things Havoc liked: I know nothing of the Barsoom saga. Edgar Rice Burroughs has gone unread by me to-date. As such, I have no conception of what the source material for this film was supposed to look like, nor what was and wasn't cut out of it to make it fit. Based on what research I've done, several books were concatenated together and turned into this one screenplay, but I'm not here to evaluate how good of a job they did. I'm here to evaluate the film they produced, irrespective of how faithful it was.
Let's start with the cast. To begin with, this movie starts out by giving me the dynamic duo of Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy as Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, (although for some reason they insist on calling them Tardos Mors and Kantos Kan) respectively King of the city of Helium, and his chief Lieutenant. The very concept of putting those two together in roles like this is the sort of terrible bribe that film-makers use when they want me to be nice to them, and I am helpless to resist grinning like an idiot every time I saw either one on screen (particularly when they do awesome things. 'Take me hostage' was a hoot). They are menaced by the evil Dominic West (of the Wire), playing a ruthless general given a god-like weapon by Mark Strong (of general badassery) and his band of evil shapeshifters. These characters are both stock and ridiculous, but these actors are so much fun to watch that they pull it off regardless. Hinds screaming that he has no choice but to act the way he does, Purefoy being a smarmy badass, West mugging for the camera evilly, or Strong exuding his typical bad-guy charm are all things I love seeing when I go to the movies. Any film that gives me all of the above can't be doing too much wrong.
But the humans are only one half of Barsoom's characters. There are also the Thark, giant-sized four-armed barbarian aliens whose society is if anything even more important than the human (Martian, whatever). CGI is nothing special anymore, but the characters we are presented with in this one are actually characters, identifiable despite their visual similarity. The king of the Tharks is voiced by Willam Defoe, a strange man whose work is always a pleasure to watch, and he infuses Tars Tarkas with a real personality that shines through the CGI effortlessly. The Tharks overall are well designed, still looking quite alien while retaining enough humanizing traits for us to appreciate their characters, and the movie actually spends quite a bit of time on their society, giving us a good picture of a coherent alien species without lapsing too far into base caricature.
The overall design of this film is awesome. The rival cities of Helium and Zodanga are instantly distinctive, both from themselves and everything else on Earth. Costumes, sets, props, vehicles, weapons, everything seems consistent and wonderfully detailed, even if the practicality of many of these things is an open question. The sense is almost Lord-of-the-Rings-like, in terms of a larger world with greater detail than we are presently being shown, giving the film a grounding it may not normally deserve. Monsters and creatures are reasonably interesting, particularly the large six-legged hyper-speed dog-like creature that Carter adopts as part of his campaign across Barsoom.
The action, an important element in a film like this, varies from decent to awesome. One sequence in particular, an all-out brawl featuring our hero against a horde of multi-limbed giants, is damn near awe-inspiring (thanks to excellent direction and editing choices). Even the fights that aren't amazing are at least very competent. Why everyone is running around with swords when there are flying machines, cannons and guns is unclear, but this is clearly the sort of movie wherein one is intended to simply accept that cool shit is happening for the sake of being cool. I'm honestly okay with that.
Things Havoc disliked: Taylor Kitsch can't act.
He couldn't act in Wolverine, couldn't act in Snakes on a Plane, won't be acting in Battleship (I feel safe in this prediction), and could not act here. And given that Kitsch is playing the titular John Carter of Mars, that's something of a problem. We'll ignore the fact that his Virginian accent was less convincing than mine (assuming he was even trying to produce one). The speeches he has to give are completely unconvincing, particularly in the second half of the film, where he is required to address large crowds of Martians and sway them to his side. I have gotten to the point where I can tell when a bad line is the fault of the screenwriter, and when it is the fault of the actor, and while the script of this film is nothing to write home about, in this case it's Kitsch who lets the writing down with a boring, uninvolved, and plodding performance that makes Cowboys and Aliens look exciting. Whoever decided that this man should be the lead and not any one of a dozen others I could mention needs to turn in their casting license.
Leaving the main character aside for a moment, the plot here was nothing to write home about. I know this is an old story, one that literally invented many of the cliches that we are now so tired of, and there were some shots and elements that attempted to freshen the matter (I liked the "reciting the qualifications of our hero" sequence at the beginning of the film), but frankly, pointing at the age of the source material is not an excuse for making a lackluster plot. If your problem is that audiences have seen all of this before, then it is your responsibility as filmmakers to ensure that this time they see it in a new way, or with a fresh twist. Not enough effort was done to do that in this film, and so it winds up coming across as competently done, but a story we've all seen before.
Final thoughts: I had very low expectations for this one going into it. A March release date for an action movie in particular is a sign not just of lack of faith but full-on panic on the part of the studio heads, who are signalling that this film can't compete with the likes of Dark Knight Rises or Avengers. And while they're ultimately right about that, the movie isn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. It's not some transcendent masterpiece that shines above its genre, but despite the boring plot and terrible main character, there's real quality buried in this film. I didn't like it as much as some of my fellows did, but neither did I hate it as much as many of the professional critics. Go figure.
Final Score: 6/10