‘John Carter’ full of special effects, little substance

By Larissa Gula

A movie that uses all archetypes and clichés ends up a has-been of sorts. The audience has seen other versions of it a hundred times… “John Carter”

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton

Grade: C+

A movie that uses all archetypes and clichés ends up a has-been of sorts. The audience has seen other versions of it a hundred times.

Unfortunately for Disney, the studio’s recent film “John Carter” — based on the book “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs — suffers from this issue. While it entertains an audience well enough with its grand special effects, a viewer looking for more than a typical blockbuster with no substance would be very disappointed by the clichés in the film.

“John Carter” certainly fits into a specific genre: sci-fi action. The problem comes not from the genre of film, but from the predictability of the genre and the film’s refusal to divert from its pulp fiction origins.

It begins with a battle scene on Mars, where a nameless villain is given the power to take over the dying planet and conquer the other cultures living there.

Cut back to 1881 in New York, where main character and former Civil War captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is followed by a strange man. Moments later, Carter is found dead. A family member Carter sent for before his death receives his journal, and the real story begins as the boy begins to read.

The rest of the film is told in a flashback. Devastated after the death of his family, Carter searches for a “cave of gold” and avoids civilization. During his search, Native Americans and a cavalry start hunting him. When he escapes to a desert cave, he’s transported to the planet Mars, known as Barsoom by the locals.

There, Carter finds the eggs of a strange-looking alien race known as the Tharks. Unable to communicate with the Tharks, Carter is taken hostage. Unbeknownst to him, humans — or at least aliens who look like humans — are waging war on the planet and the Tharks.

Carter quickly learns about the situation when Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium (Lynn Collins), arrives to the Thark community while fleeing from an arranged marriage that could end the fighting. It’s here viewers discover that the villain from the opening, Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga (Dominic West) was also Dejah Thoris’ betrothed. Despite his attempts to lie low and just return home, Carter soon finds himself swept up into the conflict.

This movie — despite its potential and impressive special effects — never pushes its boundaries. Perhaps in an attempt to stay close to the source material, the film follows a predictable formula, and the characters fit into the narrowest of film archetypes.

There is a villain with no back-story or motivation who wants to take over the planet. The main character, who is ex-military, feels homeless and wants to be left alone. The princess, a warrior in her own right, wants to marry for love only.

And while the actors and actresses certainly try to breathe life and personality into these characters — though the acting in this movie may be more hammy than good — little time goes into developing the stories behind the faces. In many cases, potentially important characters are not explained at all. Even the conflict is very dry, and its origins are barely explained. The war, which is the driving force behind the plot, merely provides the backdrop for the film rather than being the focus.

Even ignoring the clichés and overused plot, the film suffers from sporadic pacing and tone issues. Some important scenes fly by, while others slow the film down in inappropriate moments. Similarly, some scenes try to insert too much humor into a serious exchange between characters.

The 3-D is mediocre, becoming more apparent in some scenes while almost nonexistent in others.

Sadly, the interesting parts of the film are completely ignored. Cultural differences between Carter and the Tharks, as well as the complex undertones of both political and social issues, are disregarded in favor of a quick and simple plot comprised of a contrived romance and gratuitous fighting.

The film struggles to make its pieces gel together, and its most interesting elements are outshined by pure action. And while the action scenes in this film are enjoyable and certainly entertaining by themselves, the movie taken as a whole is silly, unvaried and unmemorable.