Friday, March 09, 2012

John Carter

JOHN CARTER (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Former Civil War Confederate captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) desires nothing more than to forget the tragedy that fell upon his family and search for a cave of gold, but you can’t always get what you want.  The title character in JOHN CARTER does find that gilded cave but has no time to claim its riches.  Instead he is involved in a brief clash with the strange man he discovers in it and then awakens in the middle of a red desert.

Although he doesn’t know it at first, John Carter has been transported to Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives refer to it.  He’s captured by a tribe of fifteen-feet tall, four-armed Green Martians called Tharks.  In this situation John is regarded as the alien creature.  Being on Mars imparts John with great strength and a spectacular jumping ability, which delights the Tharks’ leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).  He will be safe as long as he performs for his captors.

When the war between the humanoid Red Martians spills into the Tharks’ territory, John puts his physical skills to use saving the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  She’s trying to protect the city-state of Helium and not marry Sab Than (Dominic West) of Zodanga, who hopes to overtake her home by matrimony if martial force won’t suffice.  Sab Than is backed by the shape-shifting, immortal White Martians known as Therns.  They wish to create chaos and destruction on Barsoom.  Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the primary Thern advising Sab Than, is concerned that John Carter could ruin the plans they are trying to put in motion.

John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Tars Tarkas’s disgraced daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) set out for the holy land that might hold the answer for his return to Earth, but inevitably they get pulled back into the fight between Helium and Zodanga.
If all of this sounds ridiculously complicated, it is.  That’s not even accounting for the triple introductions, including the framing story in which John Carter is thought dead and his cousin Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads about his adventure on Mars.  The plot dump requires an adjustment period to get one’s footing.  Clearly director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, the FINDING NEMO and WALL-E helmer making his live-action debut, and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are trying to do right by the Burroughs stories.  (Yes, the author, who wrote a series of novels about life on Mars, is also a character in the film.)  They go to great lengths to adapt a mythology likely unfamiliar to the majority of the blockbuster-seeking crowd.  While their ambition is to be admired, the volume of information to process makes for a rocky first half.

Once JOHN CARTER gets past laying out the specifics of the various Martian cultures and tensions, it settles into a pleasant groove that recalls the old Saturday afternoon serials or, more accurately, the STAR WARS and Indiana Jones films inspired by them.  Stanton understands that this is first and foremost a rip-roaring adventure not meant to be taken too seriously, and he does a nice job layering in light touches and comedic moments, particularly with the Martian version of a dog.

The action sequences are high on CGI spectacle but fail to stand out from what’s been done in other sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas.  (It doesn’t help that the 3D is absolutely of no consequence.)  A colosseum battle scene features the film’s best combination of effects, thrills, and humor, yet there’s the nagging feeling that it’s indebted to a similar stretch in STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES.  The source material for the adaptation was published in 1912, so JOHN CARTER may have been doomed to feel derivative through no fault of its own.

Unlike its shaky beginning, JOHN CARTER ends strongly and brings the depth of feeling for the main character and his dilemma that is absent for much of the running time.  John Carter gradually acclimates to Mars so that a place where he didn’t want to be begins to feel like home.  Oddly enough, the film has the same effect.  JOHN CARTER delivers a rough welcome to Burroughs’ vision of Mars, but I wouldn’t mind returning for future adventures, assuming this entry reaps enough money at the box office.

Grade: C+

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