Movie Review: John Carter

Ah, John Carter.  Reviews and pieces about the film are popping up like crazy right now as everyone tries to make sense of the conundrum that has befallen the sci-fi adventure.  Fanboys are screaming foul at the poor performance, while critics and naysayers are making faces and nanny-nanny-boo-boo-I-told-you-so’s at anyone who defended the film.  It’s kind of an interesting little revolution over the mega-budgeted flick and I think it deserves the attention.  Why?

Because John Carter is a damn good movie.

That’s right.  That movie that seemingly escaped you because you thought it looked silly or done before or because it didn’t star Tom Cruise and had a fight scene in a stadium is actually a great time at the movies.  But, the naysayers are holding onto their “nay” with a death grip, much like a petulant child who refuses to listen to reason.

And fans of the film will not go quietly.  Nor should they.  In the web 2.0 universe we are able to express the good, bad, and ugly all over the interwebs and it’s refreshing to see people come to the aid of a project that’s worthy.  In the sad, cynical world of movieblog haters and shit-talking know-it-alls, it’s a breath of fresh air to see people stand up for something they deem a worthy venture.  Yeah, it’s just a movie, but it’s a good movie and one that deserves a little credit.  I’m not going to dive into what went wrong on the marketing, etc., as I’ve already done that this week in my column on  Head over there to check it out.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at the film before I start ranting.  We all know that can get a little nuts.  John Carter, based on the series of “Barsoom” novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (also the creator of Tarzan), is directed by Andrew Stanton, whose previous credits include Wall-E and Finding Nemo and is the first time the series has seen the inside of a movie theater.

It’s also Stanton’s first venture into live action, which was a big step.  Just this past December, fellow Pixar alumni Brad Bird (The Incredibles) made his live action debut with the smash hit Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.  With an impressive resume of Pixar films under their belt, the two filmmakers bring a lot to the live action genre.  Stanton proves it wasn’t a one-trick pony, but he’s not without his flaws.

John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch (best known from the Friday Night Lights TV series or as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as the titular character with Lynn Collins (also of X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as ‘The Princess of Mars,’ his chief love interest and brilliant scientist who resides on Barsoom (martian name for Mars).  Kitsch is really the perfect choice for a film so bloated in budget ($250 million to be exact) as he fits the profile and has the charisma and physicality to own the role.  Collins, as well, is well suited as the famed princess, Dejah Thoris, exuding beauty, strength, and vulnerability all at once.   Ultimately, these two are a great pair and have some truly great onscreen chemistry, which is a rarity of late.

The actors are flanked by a solid supporting cast, including Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, the leader of the rebel alien clan known as The Tharks, Dominic West as the leader of another warring faction, Jumes Purefoy as a Soldier serving the princess, and Thomas Haden Church as a villainous Thark out to unseat Dafoe’s Tarkas.  Some people have complained that the story is too convoluted, but I just laid out the main characters and their names without going to Google once, so it can’t be that hard.  I think the most confusing character is Mark Strong’s.  Strong plays a shape-shifting God-like character who is manipulating the course of events on the planet, giving Dominic West’s character a power called the 9th Ray, which is an elemental blue light that devastates everything in its path.  However, it’s not that hard to just go along for the ride.

John Carter is a multi-layered film (gasp, who knew?), which focuses on Carter, a former Southern Soldier who fought in the civil war, lost his family, and begins the film seeking to find gold in the desert.  After an altercation with some local Apache Indians and U.S. military forces, Carter finds himself in a mysterious cave and before you know it he’s transported to another world.

And so the fun begins and almost immediately.  Carter, because of the density of his bones, is able to leap like the Hulk, sailing through the air with ease.  But, he doesn’t pick it up immediately and the resulting scene is a blast.  Watching Carter attempt to “relearn” how to walk/jump in his new environment shows a sense of care and playfulness to the tone of the story that truly sets it apart from your cut and dry sci-fi.

Carter quickly runs into Tars Tarkas (Dafoe), who is impressed with Carter’s jumping skills and seeks to exploit him as a warrior for his clan.  Carter, still confused as shit as to where he is, refuses, but not before he is caught in the crossfire of Dominic West’s sky battle with Princess Thoris’ clan.  Here, we are treated to our first action sequence and Stanton and co. amp it up to a level of pure adventure.  It’s not overly violent or obnoxiously loud, it’s…dare I say…swashbuckling, a term that isn’t used to describe anything made today or really since Errol Flynn was still starring in movies.  But, there it is.  Swashbuckling.

Carter soars into action, leaping from ship to ship, fighting with swords and fists, and, oh yes, a daring mid-air rescue of the Princess.  You may say, “Hey, I saw that in Star Wars,” and you’d be right.  But, guess what?  George Lucas read that in ‘Princess of Mars’ long before you knew about a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris is amazingly beautiful and looks spectacular in her loincloth armor.  Many die hard fans of the books complained that she wasn’t running around in her gold-plated bikini as was designated in the books, but I had no problem with it.  Plus, Lucas already ripped that one off and put it on Carrie Fisher in Return of the Jedi.

We also meet a fun little alien dog character, named Woola, who is a total scene stealer.  He can run as fast as John Carter can jump and is a great little sidekick.  I would’ve loved to have found out more about Woola and seen some more screentime with the alien pooch, but what we do get is pretty damn great.

In an effort to bring peace between the two warring clans, Princess Dejah Thoris is forced to marry Dominic West, who is being guided by Mark Strong’s God-like character.  His plan?  Have West marry Dejah Thoris and then kill her in an effort to gain power over the opposing clan.  It’s all very simple, but with some sci-fi complexity.  A little imagination and suspension of disbelief will keep it all moving for you.

Ultimately, Carter and Dejah Thoris fall in love as they seek to understand where Carter came from.  Thoris, just like Tarkas, wants to enlist Carter to use his special abilities to fight for her cause.  Carter just wants to know where the hell he is.  However, he carries some demons within him, namely that of not being there to save his family from a vicious attack back on Earth.  He vows to never let it happen again and in one of the films key moments, unleashes his full fury on a group of violent Tharks.  It’s a literal bloodbath that is set to Michael Giacchino’s sweeping score and a moment that comes out of nowhere in terms of it’s contextual storytelling.  It’s a moment that makes the film a cut above the rest.

There are a number of exhilarating sequences in the film, including an escape from Dejah Thoris’ palace on a winged spacecraft, the much-promoted white-ape fight in the arena, and the end battle that wraps it all up.  However, there’s another layer to John Carter, which the marketing failed to key into, and that’s the mysterious ruse that is the films ending.  It’s not the cleverest of endings, but it’s a damn fine one and not at all expected.  I won’t give it away, but will say that by the time it comes to fruition I was ready to sit back for another two hours and see another John Carter adventure.

The film is full of CGI, yes.  That’s been a crybaby complaint of a lot of people.  Of course, those must be the people who haven’t seen the film, because the CGI is gorgeous.  Beautifully rendered and chock full of great little bits, especially the Thark babies hatching and being tended to.  And while the CGI is great, the actors oozing charisma and charm, and the action on a “swashbuckling” level, the film is not without its issues.  Our chief villains could’ve used some extra padding as we learn almost nothing about them or their true motives and there are a couple of scenes where the dialogue needed to be cut short.  While these are minor complaints, they are valid, and had they been resolved before this hit the big screen I think John Carter would’ve soared even further.

The marketing for John Carter has been all over the map and a lot of people have been completely confused by its significance.  Most have flocked to see the forgettable Lorax, simply because it has Dr. Seuss’ name on it (but very little to do with the source material).  John Carter is exceptionally true to the source material and also based on a famous writer’s work, yet more people bought tickets for the “sure thing,” that no one will remember six months from now.  It’s moment’s like this that make me seriously doubt the taste of American moviegoers.  John Carter is doing pretty well overseas, but here in the states we kind of look like assholes as we pour our money into shit movies and then whine and complain that there’s nothing good to see when it’s right under our noses.  I want to shake the American moviegoer and scream at them, “What the fuck is wrong with you??” and then hit them with my truck and baseball bats.  It baffles and enrages me.

My hope is that John Carter will find an audience after word of mouth spreads.  With the rally of fans to the film, I’m hoping that John Carter can have a good weekend in its second week, before everything gets buried under The Hunger Games.  It’s a movie that deserves to succeed, because it takes the risk of being something new (even if based on something old) that’s not a sequel or reboot that truly brings something fresh and fun to the sci-fi genre.

I look forward to seeing John Carter again and will proudly display it in my blu ray collection when it’s released.  It’s a film I will be happy to revisit time and again, because it was made with passion and care, which is more than can be said for most of what’s churned out these days (consider that the upcoming Men In Black 3 didn’t even bother to have a script ready when it went into production).  Why we fault a film for trying to reinvigorate a sense of sci-fi adventure is baffling.

If ever there was a time I wanted to see cynicism die a long, cruel death, it would be now, as the hateful vitriol spewed at a film for trying to succeed feels like a bunch of bullies on the playground picking on the fat kid.  John Carter IS the fat kid and he’s got a powerful punch.  One day, he will have his moment.  Hopefully, you’ll witness it.

If not, have fun suffering through another fucking Dr. Seuss movie.

Score: 8/10, but deserves a 10/10

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