Review: "John Carter"

Willem Dafoe and Taylor Kitsch

I know I went off about my love of the Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" novels as a kid. They were my first real introduction to Science Fiction (I wouldn't discover Verne until after I'd read "A Princess of Mars"). They hold a special place in my heart and I couldn't wait for this movie.

I know - there's been a lot of bad press about Disney's John Carter and more than one terrible review. I didn't care. John Carter is a movie I've waited a very long time to see. Am I am pleased to say that the movie isn't even close to being as disappointing as some critics have made out it to be. 

John Carter (eye-candy deluxe, Taylor Kitsch of "Friday Night Lights" and the Upcoming Battleship) is a Civil War veteran who lost his family and now spends his time searching for a legendary cave of gold in the Arizona territories. When he gets the 19th Century version of 'stop-gapped' back into service, Carter escapes, pursued into the hills by both the Army, led by Bryan Cranston's badass Powell, and the local Native Americans. He slips into a notch in a canyon wall to hide and discovers both his cave of gold and an alien who sends him off to Mars, which isn't quite as barren and dead as previously thought. The planet's reduced gravity give him both amazing strength and the ability to leap great distances at a time. Think Superman creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster might have been fans? I'd count on it. In fact, I'd count on every major Science Fiction writer and director is a fan. This story is almost 100 years old - it predates and inspired Buck Rogers; Flash Gordon; Star Wars; Stargate; Starship Troopers and other number of films it's being called derivative of. 

Barsoom is in the midst of it's own Civil War, being waged by Sab Than (Dominic West) ruler of the  beyond-enormous walking city of Zadanga, against the planet's other great city-state, Helium. A second race, the Tharks (four-armed insectoids with huge tusks) wants nothing to do with any of it. Thark leader Tars Tarkis (Willem Dafoe in a motion-capture performance) takes a shine to Carter's abilities and makes him an honorary Thark, though Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins of "True Blood"), Princess of Helium, hopes he will fight for her cause and save Barsoom from utter destruction. Then there are the Thurns, led by Matai Shang (the ubiquitous movie villain Mark Strong), a race of seemingly immortal manipulators. The plot (and there is a LOT of it) adds elements from later books in the series, but follows (as least as much as I remember) it's source material with great affection. A bracketed subplot, which posits that Burroughs was Carter's nephew, cleverly left room for a sequel, should there be one.*

Pixar Director Andrew Stanton (Toys; Finding Nemo) makes his live action debut here (following on the heel's of Brad Bird who had MI:4 last year) and does a fine job with a complex story, adding humor where he can - as with the devoted-to-Carter Woola, a sort of dog-like amphibian with six legs (think of a giant mud-puppy without the slime and twice as cute) and Carter's first attempts at communication with Tars Tarkas, ending up with the entire Thark race thinking Carter's name is "Virginia." Stanton's pacing is near perfect, knowing when to slow things down before bringing them to full on chaos. And he quite nicely manages to create battle scenes that aren't a blurred swirl of weapons and limbs.

I won't lie - Kitsch is amazing to look at. He spends a good 90% of the movie in a loincloth and breastplate which leave just enough exposed for all to enjoy. And his performance isn't bad. He play's Carter's arc from broken man to hero quite nicely. Collins, while attractive enough, isn't quite so lucky. She seems so bogged down by the stereotypes which were based on her character, she can't come up with a way to make it new and ends up a cypher. West is fine as a madman with power, while Strong sadly just phones in his performance (I can almost imagine his disdainful yawns between takes). Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton lend their voices and MC performances as Tharks, while James Purefoy rounds out the human cast.

Of course, the real stars of John Carter are the effects, and Stanton and his team more than deliver. No rubber-suited actor could ever be as convincingly real as the Motion Capture Thark are. In fact, all of Barsoom's strange creatures are rendered so realistically, we immediately accept them as such. David Allday's art direction and Mayes C. Rubeo's costume conjured up an idealized Roman/Barbarian mash-up and the whole thing has the look of an illustration by Boris Vallejo.  

I have to say, however, that this was the most pointless use of 3D I have yet to see. Unlike Hugo, which used 3D to immerse the audience in it's world or The Final Destination, where the 3D was used primarily as a gag, the effect does nothing for this rather straight-forward action/adventure movie.

The look and feel of John Carter may not seem all that original to those who grew up after Star Wars, but for fans of the classic novels, it's a treat to see Barsoom finally brought to life on the screen. D, having no idea of what the movie was about going in, enjoyed it for the most part. Our mutual friend Stephanie thought it was entertaining. I'm pretty sure the non-stop man candy didn't hurt either of our experiences. I do hope that word-of-mouth gives this movie the legs it deserves.*** (Three out of Four Stars).

More, anon.

*And I think there should be one. They have 11 more novels from which to mine a trilogy, at least.
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