JOHN CARTERS's Mission to Mars Rousing Success

‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10

A century after John Carter first found life in serialized form in “All Story” Magazine, Disney has given Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first hero one hell of a 100th birthday gift: A movie worthy of the character’s rich heritage and widespread influence.

John Carter is throwback science fiction on a grand scale.

It’s the kind of outer space adventure we kept hoping to see onscreen in the late 1970s, after Star Wars sparked an insatiable appetite for space opera. Spectacular battles, bizarre creatures, romance, even a cute animal sidekick … all the elements are here in director Andrew Stanton’s $250 million behemoth. While flawed in certain areas, it’s still an audacious effort.

Every penny of that enormous budget, incidentally, is right up there on the screen. There is jaw-dropping eye candy to spare. If only the 3D would have been worthy of the visual splendor. Oh well…

The story begins on Earth, in the late 1800s. In the aftermath of the Civil War, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a broken man.

He’s shut it down, losing himself in a quest for a cave of gold. He’s done with fighting. All he wants is to try and outrun his grief. But he’s too good a fighter for that. He’s captured by a Union Colonel (Bryan Cranston, making a brief but welcome appearance) who wants Carter to help him fight off the Apache.

 Carter’s stubborn escape attempts provide the first of several funny moments sprinkled through the film that help lighten the mood. After finally making a break for it, he winds up chased by Apache fighters into – yep, a cave of gold. He encounters a strange dude in colorful robes and gets his hands on a strange amulet. 

Next time he opens his eyes, he’s on Mars. Or Barsoom, as the locals call it. Carter quickly learns he’s somehow gained the ability to leap like the Hulk, and is much stronger than he used to be.

As Carter gets used to his powers, so too does Kitsch settle into the role. While he seems a bit too “fresh” to play a traumatized Civil War vet, he’s charismatic and convincing as the reluctant hero.

In rapid fashion, Carter finds himself in the middle of a major planetary feud. Much like Stanton’s two Oscar-winning Pixar films, “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”, the “stranger in a strange land” theme is prominent in John Carter.

All he wants is to find a way back to Earth. But circumstances keep getting in the way. Oh, and he picks up a loyal sidekick: Woola, a 10-legged Calot who’s like an interstellar bulldog, only much, much faster.

The city of Helium is under siege by Zodanga, the predator city. Their ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West, in his latest turn as a dastardly type) has struck a deal with a mysterious being named Matai Shang (Mark Strong). In return for a devastating ray weapon, Sab Than has pledged to do Matai Shang’s bidding, which is basically to level Barsoom.

The Jeddak, or King, of Helium (Ciaran Hinds) knows he is out-gunned by Sab Than. He brokers what he believes to be a truce to save the city by offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to his enemy. The daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) isn’t happy about this. She escapes the arranged marriage with the aid of Carter, who just can’t help but get himself involved.

Carter has his own problems.

He’s been taken under the wing of Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the Jeddak of the Tharks, an isolated tribe of green-skinned, four-armed creatures. Tars sees Carter’s leaping ability and immediately takes a liking to the human he refers to as ‘Virg-een-eya.’

The relationship between Carter and Tars is one of the highlights of the film. They are kindred spirits, each with emotional baggage and an idea that change is needed, but both afraid of it. Tars struggles with his duty to the tribe while also worrying about his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton).

For Carter and Dejah Thoris, it isn’t exactly love at first sight.

Stanton has said several times that giving more depth to the Princess’s role than was found in Burroughs’ books was essential. Collins brings a modern edge to the part. She’s a scientist who is up on the latest tech, including the powerful Ninth Ray, and she’s good with a blade.

 West, though, is less impressive as Than.

He simply rehashes many of the bad-guy tics he’s used in so many of his other movies. Strong, on the other hand, is fascinating as the puppet master of Mars. A member of the enigmatic beings known as the Therns, Matai Shang is a new addition to the John Carter canon, and Strong plays him like an intergalactic corporate downsizer.

Stanton, making his live-action debut here after a career in animation, seems right at home with flesh-and-blood actors and epic set pieces. He also provides the appropriate scope that a movie set on Mars should have. This is a picture reeking of ambition, which is one of the highest compliments you can pay a mega-budget franchise hopeful.

The decision to shoot extensively on location in Utah and other places really pays off. It grounds the film in a way that eluded green-screen heavy projects like the Star Wars prequels and 300.

As for the visual effects, the White Apes sequence is rather amazing, as are the various aerial battles. The film has a worn sheen that only enhances its retro pulp adventure feel. The Tharks’ skin is 70s refrigerator-green, dusty and scarred.

The cities on Barsoom each have their own distinct look, from the Tharks’ primitive village to the sleek designs of Helium.  The costumes have a Victorian flair to them. Oh, and Michael Giacchino’s score is aces.

Given that Burroughs’ books influenced practically all the heavy hitters in science fiction over the past century, and how long its taken to get John Carter to the screen, it’s not surprising certain elements may seem… familiar.

There are touches of Star Wars here, Avatar there. There is even a pinch of fellow pulp adventurer Flash Gordon’s 1980 farce here and there.  But there are more current influences at play here, including Batman. Matai Shang is like a distant cousin of Ra’s al Ghul in tenor and ambition.

As one of three screenwriters, along with Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews, Stanton the writer also does Stanton the director major favors with a few storytelling decisions.

One is to bookend the picture with scenes set in the late 1800s.

JOHN CARTER Director Andrew Stanton
JOHN CARTER Director Andrew Stanton

This provides a better entry point to the story for the audience. Stanton also came up with what may be the most clever tip of the cap to a creator in the history of movie adaptations.

He also is judicious with the humor. It’s never self-aware, because in a movie with actors walking around in outrageous (and often skimpy) costumes is always just one sly remark from self-parody.  Plus, adding Matai Shang gives the story a villain with the proper gravitas.

Where John Carter falters is with the development of some of its supporting players.

Sab Than, Sola and Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds’ role) seem primarily to be here to explain things to the audience.  James Purefoy essentially makes a cameo as the Princess’ loyal soldier, Kantos Kan. The character is supposed to play a larger role if the franchise continues, but his appearance here just comes out of nowhere and seems like a forced nod to the JC diehards.

The world-building and the plot collide at several points along the way, hurting the pacing of the film.  You need a scorecard to keep all the alien races and names straight. Stanton deserves credit for being true to John Carter’s sci-fi roots, but some scenes come and go and you’re left wondering, “wait, who was that again? From where??”

By the halfway point, however, the film really finds its stride.

More than an hour into John Carter, Stanton delivers a scene that generations of devoted fans have demanded/expected/hoped/prayed to see, if their hero ever got his big break at the movies.

Carter, Dejah Thoris, Sola and loyal Woola are on the run from a horde of creatures, when the titular hero decides, “enough.” No more running.

After years of trying to escape his demons, of trying not to care anymore, of not fighting for any cause but his own, Carter takes a stand. He sends the princess on her way with Sola, and with Woola by his side – that 10-legged scene-stealer won’t take “shoo” for an answer – he leaps into battle.

It’s a splash page come to life onscreen, a Frazetta pulp cover in live action. The sword-wielding hero taking on any and all comers, bodies piling up around him…it’s a pile driver of a movie moment.

The end of John Carter, clever twist and all, sets the table perfectly for a return to more onscreen adventures. The pieces are in place for a trilogy of films, if the audience wants it.

I know I do.

John Carter hits theaters March 9, 2012

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