JOHN CARTER – The Review
“George Lucas is going to be sooo pissed!” This was the first thought that popped into my head after seeing JOHN CARTER. That is, until I realized he has no reason to get upset. Whether or not you’re familiar with the source material, it will become abundantly clear that Lucas drew a great deal of inspiration for his STAR WARS saga from A PRINCESS OF MARS, a science-fiction novel written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, once JOHN CARTER hits DVD and blu-ray, picking out the familiar STAR WARS bits would make one hell of a drinking game.
Long story short, director Andrew Stanton only steals back from Lucas what he stole from Burroughs in the first place. I say stolen in a purely playful manner, as is this incredibly fun, if not entirely perfect science-fiction action/adventure film that is one part Indiana Jones, one part STARGATE, and many parts STAR WARS in it’s visual appeal, story structure and even with it’s character development, in many cases. JOHN CARTER may have been officially derived from the original Edgar Rice Burroughs story, but the concept has had plenty of attention through the years, from the original novel and other books that followed, a magazine serial, television series and comic books.
Andrew Stanton, best known for directing the Pixar hits WALL-E and FINDING NEMO, makes his live-action debut with Disney’s CGI blockbuster JOHN CARTER, which they have allegedly spent upwards of $250 million or more to bring to life. If this is true, I fear Disney may have a box office financial flop, even if the film proves to be a popular pre-summer release. In all honesty, it will take a small miracle for the film to break even, but do your part and give it a chance for having the balls to beckon your hard earned bucks before the summer season officially begins.
Taylor Kitsch plays the legendary John Carter, a ruggedly handsome man in his twenties who stumbles upon a gateway between Earth and Mars, leading him into the adventure of a lifetime that will change the course of not one, but two worlds. Kitsch, perhaps best known as Tim Riggins to FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS fans, isn’t terribly recognizable beyond that somewhat cult following. Stanton is taking somewhat of a chance with a relative unknown in the leading role, but I’m sure it did shave a few million dollars off the total production cost. Kitsch presents himself on screen as the young Indiana Jones type, but with a bit more old west in his swagger. I am fairly certain there is a moment when explaining his name to the locals that he whips out a John Wayne impersonation, but it happens quickly, so don’t nod off.
JOHN CARTER is no lavishly written masterpiece of flashy dialogue or deep philosophical prose. This shows in the film, but what the film lacks in textual tact it gains in a pleasantly pulpy atmosphere and tone that makes the entire experience that much more fun. Sure, go ahead and see the film in 3D. As much as I oppose the current trend, this is the kind of film 3D is really meant for and it actually works fairly well. No gimmicks, the 3D is fully integrated and never really bares itself so blatantly as to pull the viewer from the story. As was certainly the style of pulp literature of its era, JOHN CARTER has moments of embellished heroism and sappy romance, but I encourage you to play along and enjoy the ride. One of the most fantastically absurd but equally rewarding moments is when John Carter takes it upon himself to prove his valor and worth to Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), single-handedly facing a massive horde of grumpy, savage four-armed Tharks with his name on their blades. This scene is over the top, absurd, and entirely satisfying.
Without going into any great detail, JOHN CARTER follows an otherwise insignificant former Confederate Captain as he is whisked away to Mars and becomes a legend, courtesy of a certain variance in the laws of physics. The CGI in the film is vast and ever present, from the light ships and towering architecture to the arid landscape and especially the character design. While the majority of the alien characters are merely humans with a touch more red pigment and blue blood, the Tharks could be compared to the Na’vi from James Cameron’s AVATAR, but conceptualized with far more success. These four-armed, tusked natives are a major factor in the story and provide a great deal of the excitement.
Much of the star power for JOHN CARTER comes in the way of voice talent. Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church lend their voices to the two primary Thark males, Samantha Morton offers her voice to the primary Thark female, and Dominic West and Bryan Cranston round out the cast. Mark Strong puts on the villain’s shoes once again as a mysterious Thern, stirring the proverbial pooh while standing on the sidelines. This character reminds me of a far more nefarious “Observer” for those who follow the FRINGE television series. He’s one mean dude and he doesn’t play fair.
While the action sequences may be short in duration, there are enough of them in total to give it a pass. JOHN CARTER crosses two worlds, 50 million miles and vastly different cultures to produce a movie many times more enjoyable than THE PHANTOM MENACE, minus Darth Maul, even with its slightly elongated 132-minute running time that could definitely benefit from a snip here and a cut there. The lead performances are notably Kitsch-y (see what I did there) and it works. For someone who has not read the original source material, Andrew Stanton’s JOHN CARTER has inspired me to seek it out.