So apparently there was an early screening in Philadelphia for the upcoming Sci-Fi movie “John Carter.”
The film is directed by Andrew Stanton and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, and Willem Dafoe.
“John Carter” is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
So what did LR Reader ‘Thark Attack’ think about the film? Here is the review…
Warning: Some Spoiler Ahead
Whether you’re a die-hard fan or someone unfamiliar with the books, I’m sure the question many moviegoers are asking about “John Carter” is why does that guy look like he’s in Arizona instead of on Mars? You know what? Nevermind that. When Taylor Kitch suddenly materializes on the red planet I kept wondering the same thing. That is until I saw what else was on this red planet that in truth is not so red. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack.
Let’s start with who I am, just another movie fan eager to see good movies, but not so eager to reveal my true name. Call me “Thark Attack” if you will. I got a chance to see an early screening of “John Carter” in “the city of brotherly love”, Philadelphia this week. Like many others, I wasn’t really familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of sci-fi novels that inspired everything from “Flash Gordon” to “Star Wars”, but before the film, I brushed up on some “John Carter” by way of that brilliant internet resource, Wikipedia. I know, since Wikipedia features info supplied by the average Joe, it’s only accurate fifty percent of the time. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did skim over their information on the Carter books because it made my experience seeing this new film a little more enjoyable. Not that you have to be familiar with John Carter before you see the movie, I’m just one of those people who gets lost during sci-fi flicks with so much exposition.
There’s a lot of exposition in “John Carter”, some good, some a little boring. That’s typical for sci-fi adventure movies, but “John Carter” has such a good set-up that even viewers with short attention spans won’t get lost. The picture opens with some narration by green Martian warrior Tars Tarkas voiced by Willem Dafoe, who laments about how the warring humanoid red men have destroyed his home-world of “Barsoom” aka Mars. From there we meet a young Edgar Rice Burroughs played by Daryl Sabara of the “Spy Kids” movies, who is summoned to New York in the 1890′s by his uncle John Carter, only to discover that the man has mysteriously died. The former Confederate captain has left his wealth and estate to the young Burroughs with the instructions that his body not undergo traditional funeral procedure and he be buried in a special crypt that opens only from the inside. As the future novelist reads through Carter’s journal, the story takes us back thirteen years earlier where American Civil War veteran Carter is prospecting in Arizona. Being that they are deep in Apache territory, an Army Colonel (played by an almost unrecognizable Bryan Cranston) takes Carter into custody with the intent of forcing him to join their fight against the Native Americans. After a series of fairly humorous escape attempts, Carter finally makes a real jail break and flees into the mountains on horseback, where he’s forced to save the Colonel’s life after the man and his pursuing soldiers have a run in with a tribe of natives. Seeking refuge in a cave the natives mysteriously fear, Carter has an encounter with a strange bald robed figure that causes him to be teleported to the red planet. Or the red planet that’s not really that red.
When Carter wakes up in a strange desert, he too doesn’t recognize he’s on Mars until later in the film. I guess running into a tribe of twelve foot tall green men with six-limbs didn’t clue him in. After stumbling upon a nest of eggs left behind by the warrior race known as Tharks, Carter catches the eye by the tribe’s leader Tars, who is fascinated by the fact that the pale-skinned humanoid can “leap tall buildings in a single bound” so to speak. The molecular density of Carter’s bones gives him increased strength on Mars and the ability to jump nearly fifty stories into the sky. In another humorous sequence, we see Carter learning to walk through the desert before realizing he can hop across it like The Incredible Hulk in no time.
Tars takes Carter captive, making him more of a pet than a prisoner, much to the chagrin of Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) a fellow warrior who yearns to take power by the “right of challenge.” The Tharks are a nomadic war-like race of barbarians where the females must fight for their place in the society just as much as the males, often subjected to cruelty and punishment. No one has been subjected to cruelty as brutally as Sola (Samantha Morton) a female that tends to Carter who figures out she is secretly Tars’ daughter. Considered an undesirable by her people, Sola’s failures have left her on the brink of receiving the death sentence and after exposing Carter to too much of their culture, Tars grants his new human captive freedom only if she will “escape” with him. They are accompanied on their journey by red-skinned humanoid Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) rescued by Carter after he and the Tharks witness an air battle between her people from the realm of Helium and soldiers from a warring city.
The red-skinned Prince of that city played by Dominic West, has been given a weapon of incredible destruction which grants him the power to literally vaporize his enemies. The battle amongst red men has left Barsoom a wasteland with a scorched desert and the seas now only a memory. To ensure the survival of their people, Dejah’s father has agreed to marry her to the prince so that their warring nations can become one. During her escape attempt, Dejah meets the Tharks and Carter, recognizing that he is different from her race.
Dejah is not just a princess, but a scientist who slowly realizes that Carter is not a man of Barsoom, but a native of the nearby planet “Jassoom” aka Earth. With his enhanced abilities he could aid her people in a fight against the prince, turning the tide in the war, but all Carter wants to do is get home. His life has already been tainted by war, which resulted in a personal tragedy we see in small flashback snippets.
Carter does slowly begin to come around as he, Dejah and newly outcast Sola discover deep in the desert the mystery behind the origin of the weapon the Prince wields. It turns out that behind the scenes, there is a higher power manipulating all the major players on Barsoom like pieces on a chess board and with one simple goal in mind: war. Like most heroes on this familiar journey of adventure and self-discovery, Carter eventually chooses a side, hoping to turn the tide and bring peace to what may soon become his new home.
As I said before, I’m not a John Carter fan and had to go back to Wikipedia several times to get the names right for many of the characters in the film. Sounds complex, but this is a simple straight forward adventure movie featuring story elements which often lag, but really picks up in the action sequences. Yes, Barsoom or Mars does initially look a lot like Arizona, but over the course of the film, we’re slowly introduced to many different cities, ruins, geological structures and even mining facilities. They all have an alien nature about them and often look surprisingly real. I’ve read many complaints about the look of the arena sequence, featured in the trailer, that it resembles Star Wars: Attack of the Clones a little too closely. To be honest, I felt it to be a little more “realistic” as Carter battles two “white apes” in the hot sun before a crowd of thousands. Unlike Star Wars, I never felt Taylor Kitch was standing in front of a bluescreen during this sequence. Whoever did the production design for this film, not only did their homework by studying John Carter artwork familiar to the fans, but truly made an attempt to establish an alien world we’ve never seen before.
“John Carter” will inevitably be compared to sci-fi tales like “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, “Flash Gordon”, “Farscape”, you name it, which is a shame, since Burroughs’ books inspired them all. The film doesn’t try to emulate those franchises which have legions of fans of their own. It tries to tell the basic story of a hero in a strange place answering the call to adventure. Like I said before, many story elements do lag, especially much of the exposition amongst the red-skinned people of Mars like Dejah’s father and the Prince. These characters are garbed in elaborate costumes, speaking regally like they’re on the TV series “Rome” and yet what’s coming out of their mouths isn’t entirely interesting. I found the warrior race of the Tharks to be much more fascinating and it’s a good thing that the first half of the picture focuses on Carter’s developing relationship with Tars and his people.
Carter has left behind the Old West of Earth for a new frontier on Mars. He’s the pale-skinned white man, while the Tharks are the Native American tribe he eventually becomes a member of. You can’t deny the Western elements in this film, but there are also times it feels like a pirate movie, as the red-skinned people of Helium travel on ships powered by light and do battle in the sky. During Carter’s initial encounter with the humanoids as he rescues Dejah from the Prince, he leaps high in the air, bouncing from ship to ship as he engages his enemies in sword play in an exciting action sequence. Later we see him try to get the hang of operating one of their one-manned flying machines, which initially doesn’t go well.
The flaws in “John Carter” lie in the fact that it follows the same story structure for these types of films and that usually means the third act will conclude with some major battle. Even though exposition in the film is often boring, I enjoyed Carter’s scenes with one of the mysterious alien beings secretly pulling the all strings played by Mark Strong. There’s a rather nifty idea behind why he is doing what he is doing and it opens up the story better than any action sequence can. The film does feature an epic battle towards the end that sometimes feels generic, but it concludes with a rather smart epilogue that sets up inevitable sequels.
Of the three major stars in this film, I’d say that Taylor Kitch as John Carter is the weakest. He looks and feels the part, but there’s a key element missing and I think it’s the fact that the character doesn’t have a strong sense of humor. He makes a few wisecracks, but they often feel forced. It felt like Kitch was holding back somewhat, which is a shame, because despite the flaws in his performance, I truly liked him in this role. Lynn Collins is not only incredibly beautiful of Dejah, but has real screen presence and is quite a badass in a fight when she needs to be. She has a believable regal quality and projects great intelligence but is also not afraid to get her hands dirty. As for Willem Dafoe as Tars Takas, he is just wonderful. Tars is the “noble savage” of the story, but I like the earnestness of the character and how he interacts with Carter. There’s a gag that runs too long, where Tars mistakenly assumes Carter’s real name is “Virginia”, because that’s where he’s from, but I was okay with that. If there are future installments, I want to see the relationship between these two very different characters explored further. Dominic West is stuck playing your basic generic bad guy with a “big gun”, but the presence of Mark Strong (who is playing the baddie in every movie these days) makes the threat of the antagonists work.
So I guess you can say I liked “John Carter” even though I’m still not that familiar with the books. I am rather curious about them after seeing the film and if others who see it feel the same then the movie has done its job. There are time when the movie feels like your generic sci-fi adventure, but just as it does, it suddenly surprises you with something different, taking a sudden left turn away from the norm that many might find refreshing. If Andrew Stanton also directs the sequel, if there is one, I hope by then he’ll be able to get the rhythms of the story and plot to work much more smoothly. I know there are die-hard fans of Burroughs’ work out there who don’t like the title of this film, but there’s a nice treat just before the end credits where the title “John Carter of Mars” appears, followed by a sweet tribute to Steve Jobs. I’m rooting for this movie to do well, because I think Stanton has more stories to tell within this world and to be honest I want to see them become a reality on the big screen.
“John Carter” Opens March 9, 2012