REVIEW: 'John Carter'
For me, this review of John Carter has been a long time coming. I’d argue that unlike a lot of people just discovering the property this weekend, I’m far more familiar with the project. Being an obsessive follower of movie production news, I’ve known about director Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut for a few years, and it’s very interesting to see it finally play out after years of troubled development.
I’m happy to report that John Carter is one of the more entertaining sci-fi actioners I’ve seen. Even though I’ve never read the original novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, I already feel immersed in the mythology of Burroughs’ vision of the planet Mars. It’s not a perfect movie, and in a way, I liked it better because of that.
John Carter uses a smart technique to ease us into the Martian landscape, by building the characters for almost a half an hour before teleporting Carter to the surface of the planet (called Barsoom by the locals). Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War vet who the U.S. government wants to press-gang into service against the Apache tribes. Carter escapes, and accidentally finds a portal to Mars, which turns out to be inhabited by more than little green men.
Indeed, the green men are far from little. They’re called Tharks, and stand nine feet tall with an extra set of spindly arms. They resentfully share Barsoom with warring human city-states Helium (the good guys) and Zodanga (the bad). Carter discovers that his time in Earth’s higher gravity means he has amazing strength and leaping ability on Barsoom, skills that make Carter a sought-after ally in the war for control of Barsoom.
Carter has to decide if he still wants to return to Earth when he is so needed on Barsoom. Complicating matters is his interest in Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Helium (Lynn Collins). If that sounds like an overdose of exposition, I’m not surprised. John Carter is one of those movies that finds itself cramming a lot of sci-fi mumbo-jumbo into its script to cater to the less imaginative of its viewers.
While this exposition didn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie, I understand that more than a few critics have taken issue with it. For me, I take that kind of scripting as a given in this kind of movie. I find myself wishing for a sequel now that all the explaining is out of the way. Then we can really dig into the follow-up stories by Burroughs and indulge in some truly standout adventures.
The action in John Carter is all very exhilarating. Somehow, I didn’t grow tired of Carter leaping around and effortlessly destroying his enemies. I liked Taylor Kitsch in the lead role – he’s not overly serious, and there’s some funny material when the giant Tharks think his name is “Virginia”. I also grew to like Carter’s ten-legged alien-dog-thing Woola, a sci-fi sidekick who – luckily – doesn’t talk.
There’s a persistent feeling in John Carter that Andrew Stanton knows this Burroughs material inside and out. Ever since the concept art for the film started trickling out in 2010, it felt like Stanton was going to make this movie happen, even if it meant blowing a huge budget. It would appear that the storytelling focus Stanton learned from his days at Pixar carried over to John Carter – despite the wordier sections of script, it’s easy to fall in love with the complex wilderness of Barsoom and its many races.
There was a bit of a war of words around the title of the picture. Originally called John Carter of Mars, it was retitled John Carter by Disney when they figured fewer women would see it if the title referred to another planet. Nevertheless, I was happy to see Dejah Thoris rendered here as a strong female character – she’s a warrior, a scientist and an idealist. She might spend the movie in skimpy costumes, but at least there’s a brain in her head.
I can only hope that audiences will give John Carter a chance, and convince Disney that it’s worth another go around. After all, the John Carter character was created in 1917, an inspiration for all the sci-fi we know and love. Why not see a little more, to better appreciate the genre as a whole? Stanton’s ambitious adaptation could have been many things. Thankfully, it didn’t become a flop. John Carter gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of John Carter? Did you find yourself transported to the surface of Barsoom, or did the pulpy sci-fi fly over your head? Would you like to see a sequel? Join the conversation in the comments section. If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and browse through my recent reviews here:
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