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 V.21 No.10 | March 8 - 14, 2012 

Film Review

John Carter

Get your ass to Mars. ... Or not. It’s a long way and not always worth the trip

John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe

It’s like   Avatar  , but with green people instead.
It’s like Avatar , but with green people instead.
John Carter is a perfectly good action adventure. Unfortunately, it’s probably not good enough to revive a nearly 100-year-old franchise that’s had little success breaking out of its literary roots. Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling source novels may be more impressed than they’d have thought, but it seems unlikely that the general public will soon be consumed by John Carter fever based on Disney’s fair-to-middling fantasy flick.

Burroughs’ John Carter: Warlord of Mars novels were first published back in 1917 (before his first Tarzan novel, even). Though popular with fans of planetary romance for decades, the stories have had a difficult time making their way to movie screens. James Cameron tried for years before giving up. Robert Rodriguez wanted to do it. So did Jon Favreau. Obviously, they never got the chance. A rather ridiculous version of Princess of Mars was released direct-to-DVD in 2009. It stars Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords. Now Disney is giving it a shot, dumping $250 million into a blockbuster version directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E).

This is almost certainly a mistake. No matter how good the film is (and, as I said, it’s not good enough), Disney is never going to recover that kind of money on an obscure property in the pre-summer season. That said, Stanton’s version may be the best version fans could hope for. The budget’s all there on the screen. The wall-to-wall CGI is impressive. The 3D effects are occasionally exciting. The production design is imaginative. Bringing Burroughs’ old-fashioned, barbarians-and-laser-guns version of Mars to life requires a fantastic amount of special effects. It’s no surprise then to find Stanton’s first stab at live-action film littered with digital characters and settings.

John Carter narfles the Garthoks.
John Carter narfles the Garthoks.
Among the handful of non-digitally rendered humans, we’ve got Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) as the titular Mr. Carter. When we first meet John Carter, he’s a burned-out Civil War vet interested only in looking for gold in the Wild West. On the run from Union soldiers and some angry Apaches, Carter stumbles into a mysterious cave and is transported to an alien world. Mars (known to the natives as “Barsoom”) is an ancient husk of a planet consumed by unending war. Despite low-gravity assisted superpowers, Carter soon finds himself held prisoner by the savage Thark tribe—a group of 12-foot-tall, bug-like warriors. Kept as a sort of pet by Thark leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Carter takes a sideline view of the ongoing war among Barsoom’s human-like race. When an aerial clash between the warring city-states of Helium and Zodanga deposits the alluring Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins from X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in his lap, Carter decides maybe it’s time to pick a side and once again take up the mantle of soldier.

John Carter follows the narrative of Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars rather closely. A little too closely, in fact. It was Burroughs' first attempt at writing, and it’s definitely got its flaws. On screen, the story takes way too long to get going. Wraparound sequences that drag Burroughs himself (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara) into the narrative seem pointless (even if they do jibe with Burroughs’ manuscript). A bizarre race of aliens (led by Mark Strong from Sherlock Holmes) slowly destroying planets by manipulating them into endless warfare (for no apparent reason) feels like one plot point too many. Flashbacks and standard, Hollywood-issue character development further bog down the fun.

There are moments when John Carter has a flashy, Saturday matinee feel. A violent showdown in a gladiatorial arena and the long-promised Epic Battle that follows are blood-pumpingly entertaining. The arena sequence in particular shows off the pulpy goodness of Burroughs’ story. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t nail that kind of manly, bare-chested, blood-soaked sci-fi/fantasy action more often.

What with its noble heroes, techno-mystical villains, high-flying sword fights and zooming spaceship chases, John Carter is obviously aiming for the mythic scope of the original Star Wars. (No A New Hope necessary.) Even today, that film remains a model of efficacy. Characters were summed up with a simple gesture or a line of dialogue. (Han Solo’s a rogueish badass because he shoots first. Princess Leia’s a tough bitch because she says stuff like, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”)

For its part, John Carter mucks around with explicatory flashbacks and lengthy speeches to provide nearly every character with a convenient character arc to navigate. ... C’mon, Hollywood. This is pure pulp material. You dream of manufacturing pure, unadulterated pulp fiction. Why do you continue to pretend you’re making something else? We don’t buy tickets to a Transformers movie to learn about the evolving relationship between Sam Witwicky and his dumb parents. We aren’t watching a movie based on John Carter: Warlord of Mars because we’re looking for some sort of connection to the inner emotional journey of this “John Carter” fellow. We pretty much came for the “Warlord of Mars” part. How hard is that to figure out?


John Carter

Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) bravely tackles Edgar Rice Burroughs' nearly 100-year-old sci-fi/fantasy series. The massive budget is all there on screen thanks to some impressive CGI and a lot of very creative production design. But the story--about a surly Civil War vet (Taylor Kitsch from "Friday Night Lights") whisked off to battle-scarred Mars--is too old-fashioned to hold up in today's world. There are moments (a bloody gladiator sequence, for example) in which John Carter captures the pulpy spirit of E.R.B.'s swashbuckling source novels. If only there were more. 132 minutes PG-13.

 
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