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John Carter

John Carter

Let’s just get this out of the way, first and foremost.  John Carter is an awful title.  Dull and meaningless, if you just heard the title you might think it was a sequel to the Samuel L. Jackson basketball movie Coach Carter.  It tells you nothing about the fantasy and wonder contained in the film or represents how thrilling and exciting a good deal of the film actually is.  None of the pulp action, thrills, and romance translate through such a watered down, meaningless title.  John Carter of Mars would have only been slightly better but it at least tells you the movie you’re about to sit with.

Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, filmmaker Andrew Stanton has crafted a loving tribute to the writer and his work and the type of adventure stories that Burroughs relished telling.  The film moves at a quick pace and never feels bogged down in its overly convoluted and messy story.  Stanton’s love for the material shines through with exquisite character and set designs and beautifully crafted action scenes that make sense and are fun to watch, two aspects that are becoming increasingly hard to come by in today’s action filmmaking.

Stanton’s embracing of the mythology of Burrough’s character and his mythical creation of Barsoom (Mars to us Earthlings) almost becomes a bit much at times and Stanton certainly borders the line of throwing too much at the audience about this world and things can become inherently overly goofy as a result.  Certainly, as it’s a very sincere movie in its thematic content and the way Stanton tells his story, never giving in to wink-wink humor and irony that defines much of today’s action/fantasy output.  But the story itself becomes a bit too convoluted and complex at times, with maybe one too many clans populating what little screen-time there is to properly give to proper shadings and explanations.

The basic story of John Carter, a Civil War vet mysteriously transported to Mars and caught up in the political intrigues of the people of the planet, takes on entire complexities when thrown into the many factions and clans that populate the planet and one wishes that the film carried a bit more focus rather than spreading itself so thin across the entire landscape of Mars.  There are the tribal natives, the Tharks, lead by Tars Tharkas (Willem Dafoe), ten-foot tall green Martians impressively created through motion capture.  Then there are the two main warring factions, human-like, from two cities, Zodanga (the evil ones) and Helium (the good ones) with Dominic West playing Sab Than leader of Zodanga who declares peace with Helium on the condition that he is able to marry the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  And then there are the mysterious Therns, pale bald headed monks in blue robes headed by Mark Strong, who manipulate events between the two tribes for some sort of malicious purposes that is never really followed through on in the film’s running time.  And of course there are the great fantastical creatures that populate the planet such as Carter’s dog-like sidekick Woola and the great white apes plastered on all the posters.  And in the center of it all is Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter, an Earth-man mysteriously brought to the planet and who impresses everyone with his increased jumping ability and strength due to the difference in gravity between the two planets.

That is a lot of plot and background and much has been left out and it can be a bit tough at times to keep up without taking some diligent notes but Stanton, in his live action feature début no less, handles it all fairly well and juggles the storylines as best he can.  Luckily, he keeps the film moving a brisk pace, interspersed with some great action scenes that never abuse the special effects tools but rather pull it seamlessly into the film’s fabric making the actions of everything that happens in the film feel much more real and vital.

John Carter is nowhere near the disaster that people are lambasting it as and the marketing material fails to get across the fun ride that the movie actually is.  However, the film has lofty goals, spearheaded by Andrew Stanton’s obvious love for the source material, and never quite achieves them.  The film provides some fun, excellent moments but is bogged down by a loaded script trying to do too much and a somewhat bland, unimpressive performance by Taylor Kitsch (a real disappointment as I am a real big fan of Friday Night Lights, in which he is great in.).  Although I will say, I kind of expected worse from him considering the reviews but he does his best and does have a few good moments, especially when bouncing off of the wonderful cast, especially Collins as the Princess of Mars who is ravishing and displays a great intelligence in the role that could have easily been nothing more than “damsel in distress”.  Kitsch feels more underserved by the script and a bit miscast as a Civil War veteran as there were often times in which I forgot that he was a character of the 1800s rather than modern times.

In spite of these flaws, there is a great start to a franchise here that feels unfortunately stillborn by the lackluster box office and there are moments that can feel trite due to the source materials great influence over pretty much every sci-fi/fantasy film of the last century.  Bits of Star Wars and Avatar are scattered all across the deserts of Barsoom and it, unfortunately, reflects poorly on a film that is merely trying to stay faithful to its source material.  It’s a mixed bag, in that sense, but few films deliver as much fun action and inspires such awe in its crisp, wonderful visuals, it’s a hard film to hate and an easy film to love if one just falls into it and lets the film work its charms on you.

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