We review John Carter – A sprawling sci-fi epic, that makes entertaining use of vintage storytelling methods

5 min read
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Romanticism. That’s something you don’t see too much of in Hollywood blockbusters nowadays. And no I’m not talking about bad Julia Roberts or Katherine Heigl movies.

I’m talking about that idealistic, sense of wonder born of a more innocent time. John Carter has it by the bucket loads. It also has reluctant heroes, beautiful warrior princesses, strangely powered villains, wonderful alien races and sprawling battles.

And if that sounds familiar that’s because Edgar Rice-Burroughs’ classic story is the blueprint, the progenitor of all your Star Wars and Avatars. So does this adaptation live up to its vaunted heritage?

For the uninitiated, the film is based off Burroughs’ nearly 100 year old literary work, Princess of Mars. The titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a surly American Civil War veteran, who – through mysterious circumstance – finds himself transported to the world of Barsoom (Mars) where war is raging between the Red Martian cities of Zodanga and Helium. Helium is on the losing side and their only hope for survival lies in the betrothal of princess Deeja Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Zodangan warlord Sab Than (Dominic West).

Caught up in the middle are the Tharks, a race of four-armed 9-foot tall green aliens, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Carter’s remarkable heightened physical abilities as a result of the planet’s low gravity, quickly gets him noticed by the locals, particularly the beautiful Deeja, and soon he finds himself swept up in a mythical tale of redemption and love.

Despite the teleportation plot device of the narrative, what writer/director and Pixar alum Andrew Stanton has done is actually turned this into a time travel story. Not for the characters, but rather for the audience, as it hearkens back to the type of unrepentant swashbuckling space adventure that built Hollywood into what it is today. This throwback approach could easily have devolved into a gargantuan serving of cheese, but Stanton deftly keeps it in that elusive middle ground, where its light-hearted enough to appeal to the wide-eyed child in all of us, but also mature enough to resonate with most world-weary adults.

But whereas the storytelling is vintage in approach, the visuals are about as modern as you can get. Remarkable technical wizardry bring to life all of Burroughs’ amazing alien creations: everything from the savage Tharks and their beast filled arenas, to the magnificent Red Martian lightships and moving cities. There a few slight dips in quality (like the Thark hatchlings, for example), but for the most part Burroughs’ imagination is flawlessly realized, especially when we we hit the 2nd half of the film, where big battles and imaginative action sequences are the order of the day.

And while some reviewers have complained that getting to this 2nd half is a laborious and exposition-heavy task, I appreciated this world building, as this is an origin story after all. Even the film’s framing narrative – set 12 years prior to the action on Mars, and dealing with a fictional version of Burroughs as Carter’s nephew – initially does seem to be entirely superfluous, but Stanton just asks for a little patience and faith as it all pays off in a big way eventually.

As the gruff Carter, Kitsch channels his inner “Man with no name” and while he is most definitely physically capable of the character’s deeds, he stumbles slightly in a few of the softer moments. This is unfortunate, as his just adequate performance leads to some of Carter’s dialogue feeling more unnatural than it really is, especially when he has to share the scene with Lynn Collins. She, in contrast, turns in a star making performance as the heavenly-bodied warrior princess who is all fierce beauty and indomitable will. Luckily though, the chemistry between the two is palpable, allowing us to be believably swept up in their story.

As for their co-stars, despite not being physically present on screen, Dafoe is clearly having a blast as Tars Tarkas. His gravelly voiced alien is a constant source of charm. As the villainous Sab Than, Dominic West appropriately glowers and growls his way through the scenery, but is overshadowed by Mark Strong as the cold and mysterious Matai Shang.

Ultimately though, they’re all upstaged by Woola, a multi-limbed martian dog that you would have to be completely dead inside to not instantly take a liking to.

One aspect of the film that quite surprised me was the level of violence on display here. No, this is not quite Kill Bill in space, but Carter certainly learns a thing or two about alien entrails while on his adventures. One scene in particular is just a flurry of swinging swords and green blood, however Stanton – through some amazing storytelling – manages to change the scene of excessive violence into probably the most emotionally resonant portion of the film.

And it’s this ability to defy expectation (whether it be for shocking scenes or what some might call archaic film making) and instead producing something magical, that exemplifies John Carter. I won’t deny that the film has it’s flaws – Kitsch’s aforementioned dramatic failings, a few cases of slightly off-par CGI as well a bit of a muddled plot – but, it manages to overcome all that. If I had to take a checklist approach to this film, it would probably score way less than the 4 stars I gave it, however this is most definitely a case of the whole being far greater than the sum of the parts. And the secret to how Stanton accomplishes this is something that far too many modern film makers often forget about: It’s just plain good ol’ fun!

Last Updated: March 12, 2012

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions – but very little sleep – I’ve been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

  • nicholasvandenheuvel

    Woola Def steals every scene he is in.  Too cute (well for a martian dog anyway)

  • Wow this sounds fantastic, I know what I’m planning on watching this weekend now… time to hit the movies.

  • Look great, thanks!

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