The story was written weeks ago, even if people are only getting around to seeing the movie now: Disney’s John Carter is a flop. (at least in America – it opened very well overseas) But does it deserve to be?
No! The short story: John Carter is an fun, confident sci-fi epic for the whole family that was hobbled by a poor marketing campaign. It should be watched by everyone who enjoys Star Wars or Avatar. For the long story, click through…
The roughest part of John Carter comes in its first 15 minutes. Jumping quickly between dull, meaningless exposition on Mars for the first few minutes (the film’s weakest scenes), to New York in the late 1800s to a scene over a decade earlier, the movie seems to struggle to find a tone worth keeping. Once titular hero John Carter meets up with the Union army, though, the film picks up considerably, garnering its first big laughs and its first solid action scenes – and from there, it never lets up.
Sci-fi nerds will likely be familiar with the story that follows, as Burrough’s “A Princess of Mars” and the rest of the Barsoom series is a clear inspiration on many/most popular epic science fiction action stories of the last hundred years. And those that are familiar with the tale will find a lot to like, as director Andrew Stanton (Wall*E, Finding Nemo) made a film adaptation that was incredibly faithful to the source material – but even if you’ve never read Burrough’s classic books, the film’s ample charms should be enough to win just about anyone over.
The plot is simple: John Carter, a former Confederate soldier who let himself go after tragedy struck his family, is transported to Mars. The planet, however, is not the dead, lifeless thing we believe it to be, but a dying desert world populated by red-skinned humans and monstrous, four-armed aliens – among other fantastical creatures – with access to incredible technology. Carter, coming from a planet with higher gravity, is like unto Superman to these people, able to make incredible leaps and perform impressive feats of strength, qualities that put him much in demand by the various factions of a civil war currently tearing the planet apart. Captured by the Tharks, he eventually meets Dejah Thoris, a warrior-scientist and Princess of Mars, and together the two fight to bring an end to the civil war.
Director Andrew Stanton brings all that to the screen and more – unlike Avatar, John Carter‘s Mars is imbued with an almost palpable sense of wonder. From Zodanga, the walking predator city-state waging war on the world, to the sweeping gold-and-silver vistas of Helium or the simple, desert landscapes of the Tharks, Stanton and his people have created a truly memorable world, and its one that should definitely be seen on the biggest screen available.
The characters are equally memorable. Taylor Kitsch (best known as the soulful Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights) gives an acceptable performance as John Carter, a world-weary civil war veteran reluctant to get involved in yet another war he has no reason to care about. Lynn Collins joins him as Dejah Thoris, an ass-kicking scientist and just an all-around amazing addition to Disney’s Princesses (even though they will never, ever market her as such), who discovers Carter’s amazing abilities and helps him find his way back to Earth. Willem Dafoe voices Tars Tarkas, the noble leader of the barbaric Tharks, and Dominic West (The Wire, Punisher: War Zone) seems to be having a blast as the dim-but-brutal conqueror blessed with a weapon he barely understands. It’s just a damn fine cast all around.
The movie has its problems. The first 15 minutes, as I’ve said, are incredibly rough. The opening exposition, which lays out the conflict between Zodanga and Helium, is a mass of meaningless exposition that should have been mercilessly excised from the final cut, and the flurry of jumps between locations and time-periods early in the film has an unwelcome disorienting effect. At its worst, it highlights everything the public hates about science-fiction, with its mass of made-up jargon and goofy place names dropped in massive bursts of exposition.
But still. This is space-Conan, as a brawny man with a sword decides the fate of nations. This is proto-Star Wars, a massive good-vs-evil free-for-all that pits a reluctant hero with an incredible power against a more entrenched evil. And it’s post-Avatar, with sweeping CGI landscapes and elaborate alien cultures. John Carter may have its problems, but in the end, it’s still an incredibly fun, satisfying action-adventure that hits at a time when satisfying science-fantasy is incredibly rare. It’s better than the prequel trilogy, it’s better than last year’s limp Conan adaptation, and it’s better than the overwrought mess of Avatar. Stanton has some issues to work out (if there ever is a sequel), but, flaws and all, John Carter is a winning take on the epic source material.