John Carter

John Carter

Everybody, whether they’re interested in him or not, recognizes the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ signature creation: Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. But except for a few hardcore fans, the public at large is less well-acquainted with his other great creation, John Carter of Mars.

And it’s easy to see why. Tarzan, with its easily-reproduced jungle setting, was transformed into a mini-media empire over the decades, eventually becoming a pop culture icon. The John Carter milieu, with its four-armed green aliens, red princesses, flying ships, and leaping, super-strong central character, had to spend those same decades gathering dust. There was simply too much imagination on the page for anything but the pen to convey, and with the rise of film and television, that just wasn’t enough.

Like the similarly seminal Lord of the Rings films, not until now has technology caught up to the point where you could actually make a John Carter film. Which is too bad, because it means modern pop culture has missed out on the kind of classic pulp adventure that’d make Flash Gordon blush and Star Wars fans say, “oh, that’s where that came from.”

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) himself was a soldier, a former Confederate spending his post-war years hunting for gold in Arizona. When he finally finds the cave he believes will lead to a hoard of gold, he gets far more than he expected, coming face to face with an alien attempting to kill him and then being transported millions of miles away to the planet Barsoom. Or as you and I know it — Mars.

It’s a sprawling start to a sprawling narrative, but one which director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E) never lets get out of hand. Paramount found success a few months ago letting one of the Pixar luminaries take control of one of its big-budget tent-pole films, and Disney’s experiment with John Carter is nearly as successful. While Stanton hasn’t done much in the straight-ahead action/adventure that John Carter slings around willy-nilly, he knows story and he knows character and he knows humor, and those three together make certain the film never slows down, even when the set pieces come to an end.

He also knows the core tenet of adaptation as well: stay true to the spirit, but don’t be a slave to it. John Carter has all the pulp adventure you expect from the creator of Tarzan, but purists will have more than a few bones to pick. Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon pick and choose elements from various “Barsoom” novels into a plot that gets the job done but is easily the weakest part of the film.

After awakening on Mars, Carter quickly finds himself captured by a group of four-armed, green-skinned lizard men called Tharks and becomes the pet and comrade of their leader Tars Tharkas (Willem DaFoe). Before too long, he has rescued a disguised princess, Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), and is soon racing across Barsoom’s desert to help her rescue her people from the evil empire trying to enslave them.

If that sounds really familiar, it’s because it is, but it’s also because you are in the rare presence of a seminal work, of the font from which much theft and homage sprang. That can be hard for audiences to accept sometimes, like those who may not realize that rather than embodying many forms of romance film clichés, Casablanca is actually starting them. That’s particularly true of something like John Carter, which has been out of the public eye for a long time.

On the other hand, no one ever lost money betting on a young moviegoing audience’s desire to see the same sort of spectacle over and over again. John Carter then provides the best of both worlds, giving us sights and sequences that are well-crafted even if they’re not novel anymore, but doing so with an eye focused squarely on the story at hand.

Or, more specifically, the moments at hand. As entertainment, John Carter is a film built out of moments. Like his cohort Brad Bird, Stanton recognizes the need for, and has the ability the create, genuine humor without stretching the tone he is going for. He is helped by an able cast who, though often with little screen time, inhabit their roles perfectly.

Willem DaFoe, though only a voice, conveys Tars Tarkas with humanity and emotion, and Stanton has delivered in him an alien who is eminently relatable throughout. Stalwarts like Mark Strong and James Purefoy are equally well-designed, as each moment is given its thorough care, even the ones on Earth, despite that not being what the film is really about.

It’s particularly noticeable in much of the work around Carter himself, a soldier who hates soldiering and hates being forced into it again and again, despite being so good at it. Stanton tells you everything you need to know about him without once delving into stodgy monologue.

And the world itself is about as beautifully crafted as modern motion picture technology can deliver, from walking cities and giant four-armed apes to airships that shimmer like glass butterflies.

But it’s not perfect, not by the least degree. Though it is an excellent example of the modern blockbuster, told with skill and panache, it also has many of the modern blockbuster’s weaknesses.

As good as the supporting cast is, the leads aren’t quite up to following the example. Kitsch spends most of the film looking annoyed, and he and Collins have little real chemistry. In fact his scenes with the computer-generated Tarkas tend to be the best in the film, mainly because he doesn’t often get a word in edgewise.

The plot itself, cobbled together from bits and pieces of Burroughs’ writings, bounds from point to point with a difficult-to-discern through-line and no villain strong enough to keep it on its feet. Strongman Sab Than (Dominic West) doesn’t have enough screen time to be effective, and alien wizard Matai Shang (Strong) is so evasive its difficult to determine what his actual motives are, raising a question the film can’t answer: “what is everyone fighting for?”

And as all the strange alien names may have tipped you off, there is a deluge of trivia and nomenclature that, while true to the source material, will easily confuse the casual viewer, who may easily lose track of what is being said and done as it stops relating to them in any way. A little gibberish is good, but it’s easy to go too far, and in its earnestness, John Carter does just that.

Lastly, and worse, the filmmakers have seen fit to add to the film a bookend it does not need, as young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads the journals of his uncle John and learns about his fantastic adventures. Like the old saying goes, when the monster is dead, the movie is over, but this wrap story-without-a-story keeps John Carter going long after it should have ended and takes the wind out of a stirring crescendo.

That said, what doesn’t work is dwarfed by what does. A modern pulp adventure in the classic Spielberg and Lucas vein, John Carter is exactly what pointless entertainment should be but often isn’t. And if, as the other saying goes, you have to make one of these kinds of films to learn how to make one of these films, the future is bright for John Carter 2.

Cast: Taylor Kitsch as John Carter; Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris; Samantha Morton as the voice of Sola; Mark Strong as Matai Shang; Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkas; Dominic West as Sab Than; Ciarán Hinds as Tardos Mors; Thomas Haden Church as the voice of Tal Hajus; Polly Walker as the voice of Sarkoja; James Purefoy as Kantos Kan; Bryan Cranston as Powell; Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs.

[John Carter opens Friday, March 9th.]
(Walt Disney Pictures -- http://disney.go.com/movies/index; John Carter -- http://disney.go.com/johncarter/; John Carter (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/JohnCarterMovie)
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Review by . Review posted Friday, March 9th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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