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It was in 1917 that John Carter first traveled to Barsoom. Nearly 100 years after the publication of that first tale Disney has made an expensive movie titled John Carter, one that takes several elements from the first three books that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about his Martian hero. Did director Andrew Stanton pull it off, and realize the epic look and feel that captured the imaginations of millions of impressionable kids that grew up to be Hollywood filmmakers and science fiction novelists?
Stanton, director of the Pixar movies that may have the most heart (Finding Nemo and WALL-E), makes his move into live-action filmmaking with John Carter. His choice of leading man is Taylor Kitsch, he of Friday Night Lights fame, while his red princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, is played by Lynn Collins (of X-Men Origins: Wolverine distinction.) Readers of the Carter books know the gravity of these two characters, and the immense shadow they cast on generations of sci-fi heroes, from Jake Sully of Avatar to Han Solo from Star Wars and Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and dozens of other heroes and heroines.
In his own way Kitsch pulls his emotionally wounded Confederate Civil War off. The performance is serviceable but never exceeds the boundaries of what should be expected in such a brooding action hero found in a two hundred million dollar mainstream movie. Perhaps other performers would have traveled a different route in finding the qualities of John Carter that made the character so memorable in the Burroughs books, but I found that Kitsch’s reach was satisfactory but never ambitious enough to truly win me over.
Then there’s Collins’ Dejah Thoris. She’s every bit as crisp and sensual, plucky and fierce as her prose incarnation. There are major differences between the movie’s Dejah and the one found in the books, such as Collins wearing more clothes than her literary counterpart, and giving Dejah more scientific knowledge. But those are updates to bring Dejah into today’s audiences expectations, and I was fine with that. Collins sold me that she could really be a princess of Mars, projecting her regal stature with on-screen charisma and weight. And the camera does love lingering at her; with her computer enhanced blue eyes framed by her dark hair and red-hued skin, her Dejah is breathtaking when striding across a palace floor or wielding a sword in open combat. She’s perfect.
The golden age fantasy/sci-fi world of Mars/Barsoom is also a major character in the novels. Long have people wondered how Hollywood would bring to life Mars’ 15-foot tall green-skinned Tharks, or the lightships that flew across the plains of Mars, or the blind white apes that fought John Carter and his Thark friend Tars Tarkas in the arena. Doug Chiang’s conceptual designs are striking, otherworldly and much better realized in John Carter than they were in the bland Star Wars: Episode I. His Barsoomian lightships look like metallic insects with wings while the red-skinned Martian soldiers reminded me of a cross between ancient Roman and Greek soldiers.
The Tharks are also executed well in John Carter. As recently as 5 years ago filmmakers had played with the concept of realizing the Thark race in the movie as real human beings wearing make-up, but Stanton’s former expertise with CG played off much to the benefit of his John Carter movie. The CG artistry of the Tharks is abundantly clear when you see many of them in the same scene. Look at each of them and you’ll see the differences between individuals of the race: differences in their heights, tusks, eye placement, body stature, even the dirt splotches on their bodies. Such work may be only on-screen for a few seconds but it should say quite a bit about the care to detail John Carter’s animators put into their creation.
Speaking of the Tharks, let’s talk about the voice actors for the two main supporting CG characters. Willem Dafoe supplies the gruff demeanor of Tars Tarkas, leader of his Thark tribe, while Samantha Morton from Minority Report is Sola, Tars’ daughter. They don’t have character arcs that go much further than being noble savages, but before you dismiss Tars and his brethren, consider that they were the original Na’vi and that James Cameron was stealing from John Carter for his blue-skinned Pandoran natives. Cameron’s “borrowing” is just one of hundreds of small thefts that have befallen the world of John Carter between its publication date and the release of the film. That’s just how it works in Hollywood.
The supporting human cast also does well, from Mark Strong playing yet another bad alien guy with a British accent (he’s practically assured of winning this year’s Alan Rickman award) to Ciaran Hinds as Dejah’s jeddak ruling father to Dominic West as Sab Than, the evil warlord and would-be husband to Dejah. And there’s also the CG creation of Woola, Carter’s Martian “dog”, who’s placed in the film to appeal to the kiddies. Woola’s fun to look at but he’s not at the same level as Chewie.
Dialogue and story wise the script is above average. You can tell the places where someone of the caliber of Michael Chabon inserted a thought or line of speech. The means in which the three credited screenwriters drew together Burroughs’ different tales of Barsoom into an introductory story, and how they tried to give more substance to the villains’ motivations and Carter’s story arc is appreciated. As a three act coherent action/sci-fi movie structure, this wasn’t an easy piece of metal to beat into shape. After all, the source material is nearly a century old and has been strip-mined for nearly that same amount of time.
Stanton does a fair job at handling the action, comedy and romantic moments in John Carter but it never comes to the level of feeling truly novel, the way that one thinks this legendary subject matter should be leveling off at. He does try to reach for the stars, and the director’s ambition shows in several scenes showing us the starkness and brutality of Mars and the ways of its people, but then it ebbs back down and isn’t consistent through the entire show. Perhaps it was the restraint of appeasing his corporate masters at Disney and their needs for an accessible four quadrant movie.
John Carter is a good movie, a safe movie, but it never bakes all the way through and becomes a really great movie. Enjoyable, yes, and fun to watch, but it’s not the original Star Wars experience I had hoped it could be in my dreams. See it, enjoy it but likely you won't fall in love with it.
Review Score: 60 / 100
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