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JOHN CARTER
(***)
Reviewer:  Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:  Andrew Stanton
Writers:
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon.
Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story "A Princess of Mars"
Starring:
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Thomas Haden Church
Length:  132 minutes
Released:  030912
Rating:
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
“Sometimes, films simply misfire, but at least 'John Carter' aims high, and, when it actually hits its mark, it recalls old-fashioned, swashbuckling." 

A lot of movies end up being average, and let’s get that much out of the way early: “John Carter” averages out to be a fairly solid movie experience. However, it achieves this not by merely being unremarkable; some films end up being average for that reason, as they scrape by or flatline into mediocrity. “John Carter,” however, sometimes is rather remarkable, and it certainly has a pulse that keeps it breathing even when the density of its mythology threatens to suffocate it.

Director Andrew Stanton and company certainly have their work cut out for them when it comes to adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel for the screen; originally unfolding in serial form, “Princess of Mars” is condensed here into about 130 minutes of varying quality. We dive right in with some backstory that briefly introduces Mars (or “Barsoom” in Burroughs’s mythology) before entering the film’s frame story, which finds Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara) discovering that his uncle John Cater (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate solider, has unexpectedly passed away and left him in possession of his journal that details his adventures on the planet Mars.

Cutting into this world sometimes proves to be a bit arduous, at least from a narrative standpoint; there are magic amulets, barbaric Tharks, warring humanoid tribes, a shady cabal of interlopers, and, of course, a princess (Lynn Collins) whose city is under siege by a villain concocting a doomsday device out of lasers. The film winds and wends between all of these threads that often require some untangling via lengthy exposition dumps that are necessary just to keep the audience’s heads above water. What is sometimes a sweeping, pulp epic often grinds to a halt in light of this, and the film never quite shakes off its uneven pacing. It’s almost appropriate that John Carter spends a lot of time in shackles since the film itself often mirrors its hero’s fate of being constantly reigned in before he can really get going.

Still, when “John Carter” soars, boy, does it soar in every sense of the word; when its title character flies, so too does the film. The sense of wonder and discovery when Carter encounters Mars is palatable, and the sheer force of Stanton’s world-building almost transcends the film’s other flaws. I perhaps would like to have seen Mars be a bit more atmospheric and otherworldly rather than the arid, Earthy landscape presented here--my mind goes back to the ethereal, Cinemagic touch of films like “The Angry Red Planet”--but, otherwise, the universe clicks in terms of design and history. There’s a sense that John Carter has dropped into a world that’s been lived in before he got there, and its inhabitants prove to be memorable.

Especially the Tharks; I think we’ve already arrived at the point where we take CGI characters for granted, and “John Carter” is a reminder of this; one of the (many) subplots involves Carter’s relationship with Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton), and there’s a weightiness to it that almost goes unnoticed. What we see of it works, but it’s one of the many undercooked elements of the film’s ambitious scale; one almost feels like we could have had an entire film centered on Carter living among and gaining the respect of the Tharks. When we double back to this territory late in the film, it almost feels like a detour that again halts the real momentum.

A more Thark-centered film, however, would have robbed us of this film’s biggest revelation: Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris. With a ferocity that’s only matched by her stunning beauty, Thoris steals the film from under its title character, which maybe isn’t that much of a surprise considering the title of the source novel. She does this almost immediately, when Carter mistakenly assumes he’s there to protect her when it’s really the other way around. This moment leads to the princess’s refrain that Carter “get behind” her, which is something Collins might as well have told Kitsch himself. There’s a stable maturity to Collins that nicely buttresses against Kitsch’s pretty boy demeanor, and she’s so good that Kitsch feeds from her. He’s hardly the most charismatic lead (and one wonders how much this film would fare if he were), but he’s not deathly vacuous when matched up with Collins.

If there’s another star, it’s actually Stanton himself, who makes the leap to live-action directing, at least in terms of big, expansive action sequences. Whereas a lot of contemporary action is chaotically rendered and squeezed into tight spaces, the action here is grand in scope and precisely blocked. I find it interesting that Stanton and another longtime animation director, Brad Bird, have shown such a clear understanding of relating action coherently in their live action debuts; so many directors treat this stuff as a matter of fact, as a way of diverting our attention and perhaps shuttling us from one plot point to the next, but these two see the immersive qualities in huge spectacle.

I’d recommend seeing “John Carter” on the biggest screen possible just to drink in the way the title character often weaves through his battles. A sequence that sees him wade through a horde of Tharks is particularly magnificent; intercut with Carter’s memories of his tragic, Earthbound past, it’s a triumph in both pure action chops and poetically advancing the story. The moment wells with emotion, fuelled by Michael Giacchino’s sweeping score, and each hack of Carter’s blade carries a sort of anguished resonance that’s otherwise missing from the character for much of the film.

Ultimately, one wishes for more moments like that one--there is a lot to like about “John Carter,” from its strong-willed female lead to its spectacular set-pieces; however, it’s sometimes difficult to get around the labored plot mechanics and herky-jerky pacing. The sheer pulpiness of it does manage to shine through often enough; it’s interesting to see this material finally brought to the big screen after its DNA has been pilfered for decades by the likes of "Star Wars." There’s an easy and obvious comparison to be made between this film and that franchise’s prequels, as the shared genetic makeup of each extends to their flaws--both prevent fascinating, enveloping worlds that are sometimes burdened by poor storytelling.

With a reported $250 million budget, it’s probably more average than it has any business being, but it’s still admirable in many respects. Sometimes, films simply misfire, but at least “John Carter” aims high, and, when it actually hits its mark, it recalls old-fashioned, swashbuckling, high fantasy adventure. It’ll probably go down as one of Disney’s biggest follies, which is a shame because I’d revisit this universe if a sequel were released tomorrow.

JOHN CARTER © 2013 Walt Disney
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2011 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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