The Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels’ DNA is in practically every heroic science fiction adventure movie ever made. So when the trailers for JOHN CARTER came out, many audiences saw them and expressed apathy towards the movie. It didn’t look like anything they hadn’t seen before in movies like STAR WARS, or AVATAR, or even something like KRULL. That’s not the story’s fault – John Carter had been leaping and fighting aliens long before James Cameron or George Lucas were even born – but it did mean that the movie looked like, to those unfamiliar with the source material, it was “ripping off” those other movies. This presents a big hill to climb for the movie, and it’s not deserved. JOHN CARTER is a fun, entertaining film, a visual feast and while it’s not perfect it gets enough right with the property and with Andrew Stanton’s visual abilities that it’s worth seeing in the theaters.
Young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is called to his Uncle John Carter’s estate after his unexpected passing. Left all of his uncles riches, and a journal, Burroughs reads of the adventures from beyond the planet Earth itself, and of the mighty deeds of his uncle. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a man haunted by his past. He was a Confederate cavalryman for Virginia during the Civil War, but when he returned home he found his wife and son slaughtered. Alone and wanting nothing more than to get rich and get the hell away from people, Carter searches the countryside for a cave of gold. But he is forcibly enlisted by the United States cavalry, headed by Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) to go Apache hunting. Once in the frontier, the cavalry is attacked and Carter and Powell take refuge in a strange cave.
Suddenly an attacker appears out of nowhere - Carter dispatches him, but before he can whistle Dixie, Carter is transported to Mars, or as the people who live there call it, Barsoom. Carter discovers that on Mars, he has the ability to jump high, across far distances, and has increased strength, due to his dense bone structure and Mars’ low gravity. But the planet is in the throes of another civil war, this time between city-state Helium, led by Jeddak Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his scientist daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and the forces of Sab Than (Dominic West), who is advised by the mysterious Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Shang offers unlimited power to Sab Than, and if only he conquers Helium and their people, he will rule all of Barsoom.
A third force, the Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), wants nothing to do with these humans. But Carter, who is taken into the Thark camp, only wants to get back home. But he finds himself drawn to Dejah, and forms a bond of friendship with Tars Tarkas and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton). Soon it becomes apparent that only John Carter can save Barsoom from itself, and he must rise to become the hero he was always meant to be.
Director Andrew Stanton, drawing from years of artwork and aborted attempts to bringing John Carter to the screen, has created a rich world, and you can see where the reputed $250 million was spent. This is a big movie when it comes to scale, and there is a sense of wonder in the visuals. One particular action sequence, as Carter goes up against an alien horde, looks like a Frank Frazetta painting come to life, and it’s my favorite sequence from the film. Attention is paid to every detail and the effects teams, as well as Stanton’s visual sense, makes you really believe that this world is as real as our own.
Unfortunately, that attention to detail comes at a price: with so many characters, locations, and plot threads, a convoluted movie was bound to happen. Often, it feels like trying to shove it all through the eye of a needle. I still couldn’t tell you what the Therns’ real motive in all of this is – it seems like they are destined to cause strife on civilized worlds, but there’s no reason behind it that is readily apparent. John Carter is a reluctant hero, and much of the film takes too much time playing up that reluctance. Ther’s also a fat chunk of exposition in the middle of the film that sometimes stops the movie dead in its tracks, as when Carter, Sola, and Thoris travel to the remote source of the River Iss. Too much time passes as the movie spins its wheels in the midsection.
Taylor Kitsch plays Carter with a sense of earnestness and civility, and he’s believable for the most part, though he doesn’t play the character as quite so tortured that the script wants us to believe. Lynn Collins, on the other hand, is pretty great as Dejah Thoris. You can believe that kingdoms would go to war for her, but she backs all that up with intelligence and a strong will. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas is funny, sincere, and makes a goof partner with Kitsch (even in mo-cap). You’d think Mark Strong would have looked for a nice romantic comedy by now, so often is he the villain in movies like this. Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West play their parts well.
Both times I saw JOHN CARTER the projector bulb was so dim that it was like looking through dirty water. The 3D is used fairly well the best I can determine, especially with the alien dog Woola, but I’d recommend 2D for this one if the screen is going to be dimmed substantially. Much of the film takes place in sunlight, so theoretically it should be easy to see what’s going on, but I’ve had bad luck with my 3D screenings lately, and some of the battles were difficult to follow due to that.
But there are many wonderful moments in JOHN CARTER – the dog Woola always steals whatever scene he’s in, the Arena sequence is top notch, as are the battle sequences. Visually, JOHN CARTER is often stunning, and if you’ve ever flipped through the fantasy book racks, the movie looks like many of those covers come to life. I think, if a sequel does happen, that this film establishes the characters and the world well enough that I’d be happy to return to Barsoom. It’s a movie that hearkens back to those swashbuckling movies of yesteryear, but fresh enough so that the whole family will be entertained.