John Carter

Cast:
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris
Samantha Morton as Sola
Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas
Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus
Mark Strong as Matai Shang
Ciarán Hinds as Tardos Mors
Dominic West as Sab Than
James Purefoy as Kantos Kan
Bryan Cranston as Powell
Polly Walker as Sarkoja
Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Summary:
A fun story, impressive alien world, and cool 3D effects make “John Carter” a surprise treat that may not have been on your radar. Definitely check it out on the big screen and take the whole family.

Story:
This film is based on “A Princess of Mars” written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912.

After the Civil War, former Confederate cavalryman John Carter finds himself without direction. Having lost his family in the war and feeling betrayed by his country, Carter now obsessively looks for gold in the West. But when he discovers a sacred Apache cave filled with gold, he gets more than he bargained for. John Carter finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars.

Soon after arriving on Mars (or Barsoom, as the locals call it), Carter discovers that the different planetary conditions give him super-human powers. He’s exceptionally strong and can jump incredible distances. Carter soon runs into the indigenous alien species known as the Tharks and their leader, Tars Tarkas. They take him into their tribe where he soon learns that there’s a planetary war going on between the human inhabitants of Helium and the inhabitants of Zodanga.

While John Carter wants to stay out of the conflict and return to Earth, he quickly finds himself forced into the middle of events when he saves Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Helium. Now he’s not only in a battle to save Barsoom, but Earth as well.

“John Carter” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.

What Worked:
I have to admit that the early trailers for “John Carter” didn’t really interest me. I knew little about Burroughs’ original stories, it looked like a sci-fi version of “Prince of Persia,” and I was anticipating a lot of other movies more. But I started hearing the positive buzz, became hopeful, and went into this screening cautiously optimistic. So I was quite happy to discover that “John Carter” was not only good, but really good. I took my whole family to it, and everyone from my wife to my 12-year-old daughter to my 7-year-old son enjoyed it. My two sons were utterly enthralled. This was one of those rare great movie-going experiences.

If I had to describe “John Carter” to the uninitiated, I’d tell them to imagine a film that was a cross between “Star Wars,” “Flash Gordon” and “Avatar” with dashes of “Superman” and “Conan the Barbarian” mixed in. I’m a major Star Wars nut, but I have no problem saying that “John Carter” was closer to a good Star Wars movie than any of the prequels. It had the right mix of action, humor, aliens, spaceships, and magic that gave it a Star Wars feel. John Carter even feels a bit like Han Solo mixed with Luke Skywalker at times while Dejah Thoris is cut from the same cloth as Princess Leia. Then throw in an arena scene that was a heck of a lot like the one in “Attack of the Clones” in many respects, yet it was executed a lot better. I also mention “Avatar” because of the scenes where Carter is initiated into the Thark tribe, “Superman” because of Carter discovering his amazing powers, and “Conan” because there are a lot of swordfights, monsters, and skimpy outfits. What’s great is that Stanton made a film that will speak to fans of pulp and sci-fi, yet this story in no way alienates general audiences. And what’s even more mind-blowing is that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote this 100 years ago. All those other films I mentioned should probably thank Burroughs for the original inspiration.

Taylor Kitsch leads the cast as John Carter and he does an excellent job. Not only does he physically look great, but he portrays Carter as a burned out soldier well. And while that does entail a bit of brooding, he does show sparks of life that really add to the character, especially in early scenes showing him make repeated failed attempts to escape conscription by Bryan Cranston as Powell. Those brief little moments tell us everything we need to know about the character in short order. Lynn Collins is also stunning as Dejah Thoris. It took me a while to realize I had seen her in several other films including “Wolverine” alongside Kitsch as Gambit. And while Collins wears the Princess attire well, she’s also smart and tough. This is a cool new Disney princess. As for the rest of the cast, while we can’t see their faces, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church are excellent as the CGI Tharks. The animation of their characters is incredibly expressive and the tall four-armed aliens are unique.

The production design on this film is the most unique I’ve seen in quite some time. The solar sailing ships are cool. They’re low-tech, yet advanced looking. There’s logic to it all. It’s also impressive that while this is an alien world, they still use swords, guns, and other relatively low-tech weaponry. It gives everything a different feel from other sci-fi films. Throw in cool costumes, great creature designs, and impressive sets and you have production design that holds up well against anything else out there.

I saw “John Carter” in 3D and loved it. This is one of those films that uses the 3D to enhance the film, not simply for an excuse to jack up ticket prices. As Carter jumps through the air, you get a real sense of height. The ships fly right out of the screen. The tusks of the Tharks come right out at you. This is 3D done right.

What Didn’t Work:
Any time you introduce a new world, there’s going to be some degree of back story. That back story on “John Carter” is a lot to take in. You’re hit with the conflict between the warring races, the new planet, the new technology, the alien species.. it can be overwhelming. In fact, when Mark Strong as Matai Shang finally talks about their grand plan, even I was left saying, “Huh?” I think this movie might take a second viewing for me to take in all of the “John Carter” mythology and understand it. Fortunately, it’s not a big hang up. All you need to know is that Carter is helping the blue dressed humans fight the red dressed humans along with the green aliens. Or, to make it even simpler, he needs to save the Princess. ‘Nuff said.

As exciting as the movie is, it does have its high points and low points in pacing. Basically any scene without the Tharks in it is a tad dull. Those scenes are necessary to the plot, but they’re not as interesting. I’ll also add that some of the efforts to remain true to the original stories may have hampered it a little, too. In the books, Carter has the ability to go back and forth between Earth and Mars. This is a tad difficult to understand up until the final minute of the film. It’s a lot clearer once the movie is over, but in the very beginning and very end of the movie, it’s a little hard to understand what’s going on.

On a different note, I found it odd that there was a little bit of profanity in this film. Considering it’s a Disney movie, I would have thought they’d have eased off on that, but they didn’t.

Finally, I’ll add that the alien dog Woola was awesome. He’s funny, great comedic relief, and cool. But let’s face it, the thing is rather phallic looking. Woola probably needed another couple of passes at the pre-production phase.

The Bottom Line:
I highly recommend checking out “John Carter” on the big screen and in 3D. I’m going to try and see it again in IMAX 3D. And be sure to take anyone in your family. They’ll thank you later.

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