Taylor Kitsch as John Carter
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris
Samantha Morton as the voice of Sola
Mark Strong as Matai Shang
Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkas
Dominic West as Sab Than
Ciaráran Hinds as Tardos Mors
Thomas Haden Church as the voice of Tal Hajus
Polly Walker as the voice of Sarkoja
James Purefoy as Kantos Kan
Bryan Cranston as Powell
Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs
Everybody, whether they’re interested in him or not, recognizes the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ signature creation Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. But except for a few hardcore fans, the public at large is less acquainted with his other great creation John Carter of Mars.
And it’s easy to see why. Tarzan, with its easily reproduced jungle setting, was transformed into a mini-media empire over the decades, eventually becoming a pop culture icon. John Carter, with its four-armed green aliens, red princesses, flying ships and leaping, super-strong central character, had to spend those same decades gathering dust. There was simply too much imagination on the page for anything but the pen to convey and with the rise of film and television that just wasn’t enough.
Like the similarly seminal “Lord of the Rings” films, not until now has technology caught up to the point where you could actually make a John Carter film. Which is too bad, because it means modern pop culture has missed out on classic pulp adventure to make Flash Gordon blush and “Star Wars” fans say “oh, that’s where that came from.”
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) himself was a soldier, a former Confederate spending his post-war years hunting for gold in Arizona. When he finally finds the cave he believes will lead to a horde of gold, he gets far more than he expected, coming face to face with an alien attempting to kill him and then being transported millions of miles away to the planet Barsoom. Or as you and I know it Mars.
It’s a sprawling start to a sprawling narrative, but one which director Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”) never lets get out of hand. Paramount found success a few months ago letting one of the Pixar luminaries take control of one of its big budget tent pole films and Disney’s experiment with “John Carter” is nearly as successful. While Stanton hasn’t done much in the straight ahead action adventure “John Carter” slings around willy-nilly, he knows story and he knows character and he knows humor and those three together make certain the film never slows down even when the set pieces come to an end.
He also knows the core tenant of adaptation as well; stay true to the spirit but don’t be a slave to it. “John Carter” has all the pulp adventure you expect from the creator of Tarzan, but purists will have more than a few bones to pick. Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon pick and choose elements from various ‘Barsoom’ novels into a plot that gets the job done but is easily the weakest part of the film.
After awakening on Mars, Carter quickly finds himself captured by a group of four-armed, green-skinned lizard men called Tharks and becoming the pet and comrade of their leader (Willem Dafoe). Before too long he has rescued a disguised princess, Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), and is soon racing across Barsoom’s desert to help her rescue her people from the evil empire trying to enslave them.
If that sounds really familiar, it’s because it is but it’s also because you are in the rare presence of a seminal work, of the font from which much theft and homage sprang. That can be hard for audiences to accept sometimes, like those who may not realize rather than embodying many forms of romance film clichés, “Casablanca” is actually starting them. That’s particularly true of something like “John Carter,” which has been out of the public eye for a long time.
On the other hand, no one ever lost money betting on a young movie going audience’s desire to see the same sort of spectacle over and over again. “John Carter” then provides the best of both worlds, giving us sights and sequences that are well crafted but not novel any more, but doing so with an eye focused squarely on the story at hand.
Or, more specifically, the moments at hand. As entertainment, “John Carter” is a film built out of moments. Like his co-hort Brad Bird, Stanton recognizes the need for, and has the ability the create, genuine humor without stretching the tone he is going for. He is helped by an able cast who, though often with little screen time, inhabit their roles perfectly. Willem Dafoe, though only a voice, conveys Tars Tarkas with humanity and emotion and Stanton has delivered in him an alien who is eminently relatable throughout. Stalwarts like Mark Strong and James Purefoy are equally well designed as each moment is given its thorough care, even the ones on Earth despite that not being what the film is really about.
It’s particularly noticeable in much of the work around Carter himself, a soldier who hates soldiering and hates being forced into it again and again, despite being so good at it. Stanton tells you everything you need to know about him without once delving into stodgy monologue.
And the world itself is about as beautifully crafted as modern motion picture technology can deliver, from walking cities and giant four-armed apes to airships that shimmer like glass butterflies.
But it’s not perfect, not by the least degree. Though it is an excellent example of the modern blockbuster, told with skill and panache, it also has many of the modern blockbusters weaknesses.
As good as the supporting cast is, the leads aren’t quite up to following the example. Kitsch spends most of the film looking annoyed and he and Collins have little real chemistry. In fact his scenes with the computer-generated Tarkas tend to be the best in the film, mainly because he doesn’t often get a word in edge wise.
The plot itself, cobbled together from bits and pieces of Burroughs’ writings, bounds from point to point with a difficult to discern through line and no villain strong enough to keep it on its feet. Strongman Sab Than (Dominic West) doesn’t have enough screen time to be effective and alien wizard Matai Shang (Strong) is so evasive its difficult to determine what his actual motives are, raising a question the film can’t answer ‘what is everyone fighting for?’
And as all the strange alien names may have tipped you off, there is a deluge of trivia and nomenclature that, while true to the source material, will easily confuse the casual viewer who may easily lose track of what is being said and done as it stops relating to them in anyway. A little gibberish is good, but it’s easy to go too far and “John Carter” in its earnestness does just that.
Lastly and worse, the filmmakers have seen fit to add a bookend to the film it does not need as young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reads the journals of his uncle John and learns about his fantastic adventures. Like the old saying goes, when the monster is dead the movie is over, but this wrap story-without-a-story keeps “John Carter” going long after it should have ended and takes the wind out of a stirring crescendo.
That said, what doesn’t work is dwarfed by what does. A modern pulp adventure in the classic Spielberg and Lucas vein, “John Carter” is exactly what pointless entertainment should be but often isn’t. And if, as the other saying goes, you have to make one of these kinds of films to learn how to make one of these films, the future is bright for “John Carter 2.”