John Carter is classic adventure
It took 79 years of development to get a film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal novel A Princess of Marsto the big screen. On top of that, 2012 marks the centennial anniversary of the story’s initial publication. But to say that we haven’t seen aspects of this work before would be false. Burrough’s Barsoom series is one of the most influential fantasy/science fiction/adventure tales of all time. Themes and imagery have been borrowed by such films as Star Wars and Avatar. So, with a bank of seemingly recycled ideas, how does one tell the story in a way that feels fresh and that does not feel like a single one of its borrowers? By just telling the story straight from the text and that’s what director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) has done.
I have not read the source material, but it’s evident that Stanton and his writing team did not want to shoehorn any message or theme and just translated Burroughs’ world as directly as possible. The viewer is able to decipher meaning through the events and character relationships happening on the screen and, in my opinion, that is the best way to go about it.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) was a Civil War cavalryman with a penchant for trouble and fortune. After a run-in with Native Americans, Carter finds himself in a cave where he is then transported to Mars (Barsoom is what the natives call it). Once on Mars, Carter is captured by a race called Tharks and learns he has unbelievable leaping and strength capabilities beyond those on Barsoom because of the change in gravity and general Earthling biology. From there, Carter meets princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who is trying to save her city from the conquering Sab Than (Dominic West). That’s bare bones. One complaint I can throw at the film is that it is very dense. The film needs to explain the relationships between all the races while creating believable reasons for people to fight and that involves a lot of exposition. It is all handled fairly gracefully as, though sometimes feeling lost, I never felt devoid of key info and was never bored.
The film has classic Hollywood written all over it, taking more of a page from Lawrence of Arabia than Michael Bay. Shots are long, action is well-staged, and the camera is steady. Taylor Kitsch remains the most contemporary aspect of the film as while what he does is really good, there are times he just doesn’t seem fit for this world or story. What he does well is action and making me believe in his love for Dejah Thoris and the world of Barsoom. The action is spectacular and it is truly exciting to see Carter leap incredible distances and into battle (one sequence involves Carter fighting an army of Tharks intercut with background story on Earth that floored me).
What Lynn Collins does well as Dejah Thoris is EVERYTHING. I am in love. Not only is she ridiculously gorgeous, but she stands as proof that a female character is more than just an object of affection. She is strong, brave and kicks just as much tail as Carter. Collins’ performance is electric, making the princess always the center of the viewer’s attention. Disney should consider adding her to their fairly miserable list of “Princesses” immediately.
Performances are great all over the board with excellent turns by Willem Dafoe as Thark leader Tars Tarkas, Mark Strong as mysterious puppet master Matai Shang, James Purefoy as Kantos Kan and everyone else involved.
Director Stanton’s background at Pixar is very evident here as the editing is crisp and serves as a great comedic and dramatic tool. It’s a shame Stanton had to deal with a horrendous marketing campaign as this movie needs to make much more money in order to justify the sequels. John Carter has its flaws, which mostly involve Kitsch’s believability and a weighty plot, but there is clear effort and love shown for the material in every frame. I wish Hollywood made more movies like this, flaws and all. I hope that more of the public decide to reward this with their wallets because I know that I’m ready for more adventures on Barsoom.
*Side note- I’m at the breaking point with the Springdale 18: Cinema de Lux. I saw the film in their IMAX theater in 3D and it was initially hard to sit through. The IMAX was fine, but I don’t think they’re taking good care of projector bulbs. The 3D naturally darkens the movie and the bulbs need to be maintained in order to keep the image bright. It was a dark projection and the sound left something to be desired. Not to mention the staff have NEVER been adamant about loud customers or phone usage, but that wasn’t too much of a problem this night. It was by no means a terrible experience, just one more step for me in finding a new theater.