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Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon
Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe and Mark Strong
John Carter–or John Carter of Mars, or Princes of Mars, or how Disney is totally failing at marketing a movie that has the potential of being a successful franchise–is a solid and thoroughly entertaining popcorn movie.
The character of John Carter was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, and the plot of this film is based on the first novel, Princess of Mars. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate veteran from Virginia who is transported through alien technology to Mars (aka Barsoom). Due to the lighter gravity of Barsoom he in effect becomes Superman–able to leap great distances and gaining incredible strength. He is captured by the twelve-foot tall, four armed, and reptilian Green Martians–specifically from the Thark tribe.
Barsoom at this time is a planet with depleting resources. The Green Martians are the least advanced of the races on Barsoom. They live in deserted cities, have a hive mentality, and believe in survival of the fittest–their leaders dethroned by physical challenge. The Red Martians are humanoid. They live in cities, have advanced technology, and have air ships that use light for power. The two Red City-States of Helium and Zodanga are locked in a battle for supremacy. Into this conflict the Therns–a highly advanced and mythological race–interject themselves. Awarding Zodanga new weapons that tip the balance of power in their favor.
While in captivity, John Carter earns the trust of Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the leader of the Tharks. From the Thark city he witnesses and then becomes involved in a great battle between air ships of Helium and Zodanga; in the process rescuing Dejah Soris (Lynn Collins)–Princess of Helium. Their story and adventure continues with journeys across the desert, battles in arenas, races against time across the desert in air ships, epic battles in cities, and a final swashbuckling climax to prevent a political & doomed wedding.
One of the amazing things about the story and visuals of the film was the familiarity of it all; and the realization that George Lucas borrowed a lot of material from Edgar Rice Burroughs. But whereas Lucas had flat scenes with wooden acting, Andrew Stanton (the director) brings life and joy to his depictions. The film also has a good balance of action, comedy and drama. The characters are played straight, but never take themselves too seriously.
The film is bookended with the character of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading the journal of John Carter and visualizing the story. The beginning is paced slowly, but that pacing sets-up a good pay-off at the end. The action on Barsoom is faced paced with a lot to keep track of. Clocking in at 2 hrs and 9 minutes, the movie never feels flabby or slow. The 3D was unnecessary and not very noticeable, As a matter of fact, the only scene that looked truly 3D were the graphics used during the closing title credits.
The acting is strong throughout. Taylor Kitsch carried the film well, and if given a chance with a sequel can really grow and improve the character. Willem Dafoe was able to convey both the brutality and compassion of his character despite being unrecognizable. Lynn Collins comes across as the strong and intelligent person her character is. Also, and this is a compliment to the screenwriters, the character was not made perfect and had her faults. With the exception of Mark Strong as the main Thern villain Matai Shang, the remaining roles could have been played by anyone. The normally reliable Strong was not on his “A” game.
Disney is hoping for a Pirates of the Caribbean type franchise, but I am not sure they are going to get it. Their marketing did not make it clear this is a science fiction-action/adventure film, and audience members in the advance screening I went to weren’t sure what it was about before the movie screened.
This is a fun film and I hope for more. A lot happens on the screen and it should be watched in a theatre.
Grade = B+