MOVIE REVIEW: ‘John Carter’

I’ve spent the last several weeks following and writing about the negative buzz surrounding John Carter with a kind of fascinated dismay. The things that make or break a film – especially when they seem to have very little to do with what’s actually on the screen – fascinate me, but because it was this film that seemed to be breaking before it was even released, I found myself once again overwhelmed with cynical passive-aggression toward Hollywood. See, I believe in Andrew Stanton, the genius who brought us Finding Nemo  and Wall-E and who has been an integral part of Pixar since it began. I believe in Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay who champions genre fiction and bashes critical pretensions from inside the literary establishment. I believe in Edgar Rice Burroughs and his timeless, now 100-year-old story of a man who landed on a red world called Barsoom. I believe in all of that, and so I wanted to be vindicated. I tried for weeks to give John Carter the exposure I felt it deserved. I wanted to prove to everyone that the pundits were wrong, that it was worth seeing despite the convoluted and often obnoxiously bland marketing machine. And so I went to see John Carter hoping to be vindicated and worried that I would be both disappointed and embarrassed. What if it wasn’t good? What if it was terrible? Would I leave the theater still believing in John Carter?

The short is answer is yes. I still believe in John Carter. I left the theater without a shred of disappointment. My appreciation for its creators remains intact. I am still a John Carter champion. So, if you don’t feel like reading this entire fanboy ramble, at least leave here knowing that this is my recommendation: If you’re a lover of sci-fi cinema, don’t skip this movie. If you believe there should still be a place in the world for blockbusters that rely as much on story as they do on special effects budgets, don’t skip this movie. If you just believe in fine filmmaking, don’t skip this movie. That’s my short-form review of John Carter, and you won’t convince me otherwise.

Now, for those of you who are still with me, the long version:

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a down on his luck Confederate veteran prospecting for gold in Arizona when he finds himself suddenly and mysteriously transported to Mars (which the locals call “Barsoom”), where he’s quickly captured by a clan of Tharks, a race of green, four-armed aliens. Because Mars’ gravity gives him the ability to jump incredibly high, Carter earns the respect of the Tharks and their chieftain, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).

Things get even crazier when an airship carrying the beautiful Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) crashes nearby. Thoris is a princess from Helium, a Martian city-state engaged in a war with the powerful city-state of Zodanga, led by the vicious Sab Than (Dominic West). Than is on a mission to conquer all of Barsoom, and he has help in the form of Holy Thern Matai Shang (Mark Strong), a kind of cosmic priest with a master plan for wreaking havoc on the planet. Thoris believes her only option to save her people is to marry Than, but when she meets Carter, she sees a new chance to win the fight, and Carter finds himself thrust into the midst of a conflict he didn’t ask for even as he’s trying to make his way home from a place he never intended to be.

Now comes the part where I address the purists, because I know some of you are out there thinking that not all of this exactly jives with the first Barsoom novel on which this film is supposedly based. So, for the record: Yes, I’ve read A Princess of Mars. I read it and loved it. In fact, I finished reading it the day before I saw the film, just so I could be sure it would be fresh in my mind. I have no problem with the liberties taken here for two reasons. One, the story remains true to the spirit of the book. And two, that novel was never going to work as a straight film adaptation. A Princess of Mars is a very loose kind of novel. It’s an adventure divided up into many smaller adventures, and a great deal of it focuses on Carter’s immersion into Thark culture and not on the really adventurous parts. That means a little streamlining was useful, and Stanton, Chabon and fellow screenwriter Mark Andrews did it with love and respect. They emphasize moments of peak entertainment (by, for example, expanding the sequence in which Carter learns how Mars’ gravity affects him) while streamlining moments that might cause drag (like simplifying Carter’s learning of the Thark language by giving him what amounts to magic milk). You can nitpick all you want, but it’s called an “adaptation” for a reason, and in this case it was (mostly) done right.

That doesn’t mean the story isn’t without its flaws, though. Stanton, Chabon and Andrews are to be commended for refusing to underestimate the intelligence of their audience. This is a film you have to watch to follow, but as long as you pay attention everything makes sense, or will makes sense when it’s supposed to. The problem isn’t the plot points. It’s the moments in between the plot points. The story slows down, almost stops, then ramps up again. The film clocks in at more than two hours, and it could have easily been 15 minutes shorter.

But this slightly muddled feeling is offset by a stunning visual palette that never lets up. We already knew Stanton was a visual dynamo when it came to animation, but he’s definitely proving his live-action chops here. John Carter‘s look is consistently stunning, from airship battles above Barsoom to arena clashes to the gorgeous city of Helium. The story might start dragging, but the visuals ensure you’ll never be truly bored.

John Carter won’t go down in history alongside Star Wars in the “Earth-Shattering, World-Changing Sci-Fi” category. Sadly, it’s not the stuff of legend. What it is, though, is a wonderfully imagined adventure that shines even when its flaws are showing. I was expecting a good film, and I got it, but I wasn’t expecting to have quite as much fun as I did. John Carter is, in the spirit of Burroughs, unabashedly pulpy and melodramatic, but that’s part of its strength. The visuals pull you in, the action and humor keep you going, and the ending leaves you satisfied. So yes, I still very much believe in John Carter.

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