Review: John Carter Deserves All the Legendary Status It Can Get
by Jeremy Kirk
March 9, 2012
Yes, 95 years is a long time for fans of a novel to wait for a film adaptation. Anyone waiting that long for one film probably won't be satisfied by the results, either, the build has been so big. Chances are, anyone who grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series of novels isn't even around to see the new film from Andrew Stanton. They'd be missing out, too. John Carter, based on the first of Burroughs' Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, is a swashbuckling adventure that relies heavily on character, story, and visual effects alike, and they all mesh wonderfully. It's been a long wait, but for all the fans, it will be well worth it.
Taylor Kitsch plays the titular character, a veteran of the Civil War who has lost his wife and child to the dangers of a United States on the rise. Carter's adventure really begins, though, when he finds himself transported from our world to the surface of Mars, what the natives of the planet call Barsoom. There, he finds a world at war, two sides fighting over control and a 12-foot species of creature caught in the middle. He also comes across a princess, God-like creatures who have seemingly endless power, and an adventure that will change his view of the world forever.
John Carter is all about "adventure." It's a word that's been used four times in this review already, but even that seems like an understatement. It's appropriate to harp on the adventure side of John Carter, even if the film is slow going at first. Stanton, taking the director's seat on a live-action feature after hitting with Pixar fare like Finding Nemo and WALL-E, sells the film's mystery too hard at first. The opening moments of John Carter show us a random series of events, establishing sequences for both Mars/Barsoom and this man at the center of all the excitement. It's well within the film before Carter even finds the cave that transports him to another world, and, by then, the audience is well good and ready for something more hair-raising than gold mines and cobblestone streets.
Thankfully, the audience gets that as soon as Carter finds himself bouncing across the surface of the alien planet. The film hardly lets up from there, taking us from one pulse-pounding sequence to the next, always playing on the B-grade serial tone all the while peppering in vibrant and interesting characters. Much of Barsoom's inhabitants are anthropoid, human-like in appearance, but they aren't even the characters Carter mostly relates to.
The 12-foot aliens, a native tribe known as the Thark, act as Carter's introduction point to Barsoom. Them and the dog-like creature who becomes Carter's "best friend" at 80 miles per hour. They're leader, Tars Tarkas, voiced by Willem Dafoe, acts more humane than the rest, but the others are never depicted as savages. Stanton, as well as Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, who act as co-writers here, does a fine job finding the humanity in all the CG creations of his world. Much of that is in the performances, the voices coming from actors like Dafoe and Samantha Morton and their facial recreations thanks to the best motion capture has to offer. Performance can only take a character so far, though, and Stanton and the rest of his crew who bring this world to cinematic reality deserve all the credit they can get.
Those 95 years between A Princess of Mars and now have been ripe with fantasy casting, particularly of the John Carter character. Kitsch is the perfect choice, eliciting a boyish charm, rugged edge, and smooth operator all in one. He finds a nice foothold in the character, giving him a laid back approach but with all the intensity the eyes can muster. But the heart of the character is in his absence in the world. Carter is a man whose will has been broken and who is searching for any place he could call home. He's lost in his own world, confused in the other, and Kitsch brings all of that right to the camera with one raising of the eyebrows. It's the kind of performance one might call effortless in the hands of a more veteran actor. We'll call it effortless here, as well, and leave it at that.
Acting and character are important in a film like John Carter. Story is a must-succeed, as well, and none of that is a problem for Stanton. The questionable part in John Carter, or, rather, the potential for something questionable in this film, is in the action. John Carter completely delivers in that category, as well. All told with a brightness rarely seen in big budget, sci-fi epics - A much "darker" version of Carter was surely discussed, but, thankfully, discarded for something we can all actually see - the action in John Carter is always present and completely satisfying. Carter leaps hundreds of feet in the air and over long distances, and Stanton never shrouds this effect with quenched lighting. The same goes for the motion captured Thark and the computer generated ships that float through the sky. It's all right there for you to see, because there's nothing in any of these effects to be ashamed of. They all look great, and, though they aren't entirely photo realistic, they're believability rests in the reactions of those who see them. That's Kitsch and Lynn Collins as the Princess of Mars and Dominic West as the nefarious Sab Than, a man who takes control of the planet after the God-like Therns present him with a deadly weapon. We believe because these characters believe, and we know these characters believe because the performances tell us they believe.
There's a setting up of sorts for a sequel, the kind of open-end that's become all too popular in recent years with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Those franchises were guaranteed to be completed, but John Carter's success is the most questionable element about it. This isn't something often discussed in a review, how successful the film is going to be, but it needs be discussed here due to the mishandling of this property Walt Disney Pictures has in their grasp. It's a film that could spark all manner of toys, games, expanded universe novels and comic books, basically anything and everything films like Star Wars seem to take for granted these days, but it's nary produced a single toy. What's more, John Carter is deserving of all of that, an epic adventure - there's that word again - that delivers everything it promises and more, a film 95 years in the making whose legacy seems to have already been written. John Carter is a film that hits theaters today, but it's already a legend. Someone just needs to take notice of that fact.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10