AKA: John Carter of Mars (2012) - Closing Credits Title
AKA: A Princess of Mars (2012) - Working Title
(Release Date: March 09, 2012)
The Day Mars Stood Still!!!
With history like this (not to mention the parentage of the creator of Tarzan) Disney had their work cut out for them. To help make the dream of an accurate and big budget film surrounding "Captain Jack Carter" during the centennial of the character's first appearance, Disney brought in accomplished writers Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews and Andrew Stanton, pumped it full of a Two-Hundred Fifty Million dollar budget and packed the cast with both up-and-coming stars and recognizable faces. All that and Stanton also directed in his live-action debut. Yeah... the director of Wall*E directed and co-wrote this adaptation. Excellent pedigree... but does it deliver?
The fair and honest answer to that question is... "Almost".
2012's simply-titled John Carter is among the more accurate Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations ever made (and surely the most accurate Barsoom story). And for the very reasons this cool film succeeds as an adaptation of a classic science fiction tale it often doesn't make it as anything near the universal mainstream audience pleaser that we have come to expect from Stanton (who also worked on all three Toy Story films as well as Finding Nemo).
John Carter is a truly sci-fi film of the pulpy Ray Gun kind (although, as in the novel, the guns here shoot bullets). There is a fascinating Steam Punk design to a great deal of the sci-fi technology and the civilizations we see here are not of the usual fashion of "what styles and technology will humans have in the future?" but the less-common influence of impossible equipment and styles inspired by antiquity. While this sort of thing is straight out of the novel, its strange and bizarre nature is may strike many as decidedly... alien.
Taylor Kitsch stars as our titular John Carter, a former Confederate Cavalry soldier who has been chasing down strange artifacts in a decidedly Indiana Jones fashion for years. That is, according to his Journal, which is being read by his Nephew Edgar Rice "Ned" Burroughs (here played by Daryl Sabara). Carter's misadventures on Earth lead him to a conflict with Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and, ultimately to a strange cave... and the next thing he knows he's on Mars.
Trust me, it's not as contrived as it sounds. Soon, Carter is embroiled in a conflict between warring factions like the seemingly magical Thern (as represented by Mark Strong's Matai Shrang), the human-like denizens of the city of Helium (led by Ciaran Hinds' Tardos Mors) and their same-species rivals, the warlike denizens of Zodanga (led by Dominic West's Sab Than) and the unquestionably "Martian" Tharks (exemplified by Willem Dafoe's Jeddak Tars Tarkas).
While all of these are pretty damned awesome, it's the Thark race that might have been the easiest to mess up... and who, happily, came to the screen almost completely intact from the novel and beautifully realized in realistic CGI. Each of the featured Thark actors lent their voices and motion capture to their characters and with their performances and, no doubt, the direction of the animation-experienced Stanton these remarkable four-armed, fifteen-foot-tall aliens have an amazing realism to them. In addition to Dafoe, these impressive noble savages are brought to life by such actors as Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker, and even Jon Favreau and David Schwimmer in Thark-Cameo appearances.
As do the fantastical flying machines of the warring human-like "Red Martians", which look incredible... but not nearly as incredible as the Princess of Mars herself, Dejah Thoris (Viola Lynn Collins). Collins is not only beautiful (and fills out her desert-appropriate costuming quite prettily), she also makes a credible warrior and a sexy leading lady.
The eye-popping visuals that never shy away from that now-unconventional Flash Gordon style, coupled with some of the best CGI money can buy and some high-quality actors seem, on paper, to make for a near-perfect Sci-Fi epic. Unfortunately we don't quite get there as John Carter, as a film, nearly collapses under its own weight.
The pulpy sci-fi and classic fantasy, although they may seem unfairly "cheesy" and "out-of-date" to some audiences, are not really the problem here... in fact, it's a big plus that Stanton and company worked so hard to bring this story to the screen intact with very few significant changes. The real issue here is the scattershot pacing and because-I-said-so logic. Remember what I said above about Carter's anything-but-cliche method for reaching Mars not actually becoming a contrived plot point? Well, unfortunately, the rest of the film is packed with contrivances, convenient plot-hole patching and credibility stretches that still leave the brain cramped. Just when this cool film has its audience buying into the out-of-this-world tale of space Burroughs, by way of Disney, has given us, the characters start to change like the wind for no viable reason and our logic centers are asked to take longer leaps than our gravity-defying protagonist (whose "superpower" is being an Earthling able to leap tall ANYTHINGS in a single bound due to Mars' lower gravity).
Further, there is a big difference between "ambiguity" and "obscurity". Much of the time Stanton and company give us some great exposition mixed with mystery. Other times we get unresolved mysteries that never seem to lead to or even hint at something later on. Samantha Morton's dynamic Thark Sola and James Purefoy's Helium Captain Kantos Kan add further layers to the plot... which, although they're compelling, also lead to frayed loose ends that we never quite see tied up.
Part of the culprit here may be that, in spite of its Two-Hour and Twelve Minute runtime, John Carter may have had just a little bit too much plot to give full justice to. The fact that Disney is hoping that this expensive flick will be the first in a trilogy is both exciting and daunting. If this comes to be, couldn't we have had just a bit of this overloaded plot saved for a sequel... or are we to expect two more movies as jam-packed as this one, filled to the rim with brimming, yet not-always fleshed-out or solved plot points.
That's certainly not to say that this is a "bad film". It's not nearly as great as it could have been, but it's a hell of a good time at the movies with a bag of popcorn and a full house. This is also one of the best LOOKING movies you could buy a ticket to see both right now and for quite some time. The actors (but more so the actresses) look great and the CGI and motion-capture are both awesome... especially those amazing Tharks. Just as Avatar was heavily influenced by the famous tales of "John Carter of Mars" (although it was equally or more influenced by Ferngully), John Carter could have, in turn, been a disciple of Avatar in its character designs. However, as with most of the story, Stanton and company kept the Martians purely Burroughs in their influence and origin. This is a truly beautiful film and succeeds in aesthetics even when it fails in other areas.
I have to point out that most of the popular complaints about this film, quite simply, hold no water whatsoever... even on Mars. To say that this story has been done before is to piss on one hundred years of legacy that started with A Princess of Mars in 1912. To say that this film is "cheesy" is to defame the very influence that Edgar Rice Burroughs' work has enjoyed for these past hundred years. These were HIS cutting edge ideas that were copied by others. Complaining about the fact that others did them before this movie is tantamount to complaining that Disney tried to stick as close as possible to the source material (while, thankfully, avoiding the now-evident undertones of racism) while creating an actual adaptation.
On the other hand, to complain that John Carter is convoluted and occasionally contrived with quickly shifting characters and malleable logic... is right on the money. This is why I can only give this fun, fantastical and spectacular film Three Stars out of Five! On a personal note, however, I had a great time with this movie (eye-rolls at the plot holes and all) and I would be happy to watch it several more times with a big smile on my face... Especially for Lynn Collins. Hello Nurse!
See you Martians in the next Red Reel!
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reviewed by J.C. Mašek III
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And for the fact that he's BALD and SOBER on Saint Patrick's Day!
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