Theatrical Review: John Carter

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation is undoubtedly the lord of the jungle, Tarzan.  Mr. Burroughs has also taken us to lands where dinosaurs still run free, the Earth’s core and to planets near to us, both Venus and Mars.  Burroughs’ trips to Mars were always my very favorite, and his heroic creation, John Carter, was, to me anyway, one of the greatest creations in literature.  I grew up reading first the comic book adventures of John Carter in the pages of DC Comics’ Weird Worlds where writer Marv Wolfman and artists Murphy Anderson and later Sal Amendola chronicled the adventures of the good captain, loosely based around Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.  Of course the actual book came next and I was in love with the character and the fantastic world of Barsoom (that’s what the Mars inhabitants call their world) all over again.

So yeah, I guess you can say I’m a big fan and so I was very much looking forward to it when Disney announced a big-budget live-action film version which was going to be more spearheaded by some of the Pixar kids more than on the Disney side.  Pixar’s own Andrew Stanton is the director of John Carter making his live action directorial debut after directing such films as Wall•E and Finding Nemo and he’s obviously a big fan as well, he definitely gets it and has made a film that I thought was quite an enjoyable experience.  Sometimes you wonder though if Disney marketing would’ve let him take it as far he did.

See, originally, this was announced under the title of John Carter of Mars and then it was simply titled John Carter as, from what I understand, a result of focus group testing in which a full 50% of the people tested said that they would not go to see the movie if the “of Mars” was in the title.  Oh yeah, there’s scantily clad people running around in battles with swords, there’s airships flying about, there’s a guy who can leap great distances, and let’s not forget the 10-foot tall four-armed green men and women as well… and the “of Mars” would keep them out of the theatres…. You hear about things like this and you sometimes just have to wonder why they even bother.

But no matter… as I said, I thought John Carter was a pretty enjoyable ride.  The basic premise is this: Carter, a former confederate cavalry captain is in America’s west after the end of the Civil War.  He’s about to be conscripted in with the United States cavalry (against his will) and goes on the run.  As he’s on the run, Carter goes into a mysterious cave which he soon finds to be a doorway to the planet Mars.  Once on Mars, or as their inhabitants call it Barsoom, Carter finds that his strength is much greater on the planet, he meets up with the race of 10-foot tall four-armed green people known as Tharks (their leader, Tars Tarkas takes great personal interest in Carter) and soon gets caught up in the struggle between warring City-States of Zodanga and Helium.  Helium’s princess, the ravishing Dejah Thoris, persuades Carter to help her in Helium’s battle with their enemy all the while a greater threat looms.

Now that’s the basic premise, though there’s much more to it than that, but generally speaking, this is extremely pulpy material and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  During the credits, it will say “Based on ‘A Princess of Mars” where it should actually say “loosely”– again, nothing wrong with that as long as the basic spirit of the piece is preserved, but I just bring that up in case anyone decides that they want to read the book later- well, parts of it will be in the movie.  Fortunately, the spirit is well preserved here and there’s quite a bit that Stanton and company get dead solid perfect in this, but also a few stumbling blocks as well.

The biggest stumbling block is that I think they try to do too much in just this one film and overcomplicate things a bit.  I mentioned above about a greater threat looming- well that threat is certainly true to the books, but doesn’t come along until a little bit later in the series.  What they’ve done here is basically push this into being more of an epic than it has to be, whereas there’s enough basic material in A Princess of Mars to more than make for a good rousing adventure and have the chance to breath a bit when it needs to.

The other thing that bothers me a bit, though I don’t think this will really deter from anyone’s enjoyment of the film, is the relationship set-up between Dejah Thoris and John Carter.  It starts as adversarial when there’s really no need to do so.  Yes, they want to make Dejah Thoris more than just this object of desire, and that’s certainly fine, but I don’t necessarily think you have to go at it with both characters sorta sniping at each other from the start.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unbearable and it’s not all pervasive, it’s just a little different from what I’m used to seeing with these characters and thus I question whether it should even be in there.  It’s a moot observation.

When they get stuff right here though, they really get it right.  Carter’s first experiences on Mars, adjusting to the Martian gravity and then coming into contact with the Tharks was just so pleasing to see.  The entire art direction and design should please anyone who’s seen any other visual version of Carter and company in the past.  Carter’s epic battle with one of the White Apes of Mars, is genuinely thrilling and casting through the whole film is right on the money.

Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter and Lynn Collins plays Dejah Thoris.  Both have worked together before on the first Wolverine movie and their casting for this film was announced shortly after that movie came out.  Kitsch wouldn’t have been my first choice for this part (I would’ve cast Lost’s Josh Holloway as the good captain), as he seems a little too on the younger side, but once things get going, you can tell that Kitsch is having a ball with the whole thing.  He may not be my own personal first choice, but still he was a good choice to play the part.  Lynn Collins has moments where she’s just the purest of visions to what I expect Dejah Thoris to look like in live action  To me, that just might be the toughest thing about casting that part- getting an actress who has those looks, can pull off the regality and isn’t a big enough name where her name overshadows everything else, Collins does the job.

Nice support all around, Willem Dafoe is going through the whole motion capture route to play Tars Tarkas of the Tharks, and there are some great moments between him and Carter at various times through the movie. If you know the series, then you know that the relationship that happens between these two is right up there to something like Riggs and Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon series.  There are glimpses of it here (and there could’ve been more had this stuck more to the source) and it’s always cool when it happens. Ciarán Hinds plays Tardos Mors, the leader of Helium, Dominic West plays the villainous Sab Than of Zodanga, and Mark Strong plays Matai Shang (part of the looming threat I allude to above).  Joining Dafoe in the motion capture end you’ve got Samantha Morton as Sola (Tars’ daughter), Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus, a challenger to Tarkas’ leadership and Polly Walker as Sarkoja, a female Thark who absolutely delights in ratting out Sola whenever she can.  And adding even further, you’ve got the great Bryan Cranston in at the start as Colonel Powell, the cavalryman who’s trying to get Carter to join with him.  It’s a terrific supporting cast and my one lone complaint is just not enough Tars Tarkas…

Did I have a good time John Carter? Hell, yes… Was it at the same level as some other big action films like a Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol? (and I only use that as an example because it’s another action film from a director who’s best known for his work in animation)  Not quite… I guess I might be a little too close to the source material, but still, I do think it’s very much worth seeing and they certainly do get a lot right here, it’s just that the mix may be a little too filled with some unnecessary (for now) stuff for an introductory movie.  It is a great time and it sure as hell beats the Asylum/SyFy Channel version that stars Antonio Sobato Jr. as John Carter and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris (though that is good for a laugh, but still, it’s so low budget that they couldn’t afford the four extra feet in height and two additional arms for their Tharks).

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

11. March 2012 by Darren Goodhart
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