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John Carter (2012)
Movie Reviews

John Carter (2012)

Relinquishes virtually all restraint on common sense and plunges headfirst into pure intergalactic melodrama; half of the fun comes not only from recognizing the familiar but also from witnessing the impossible.

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Like all good space operas, John Carter relinquishes virtually all restraint on common sense and plunges headfirst into pure intergalactic melodrama. In spite of the obvious narrative anchors to reality – feuding tribes, political corruption, romance, advancements in technology – we’re immersed in a world and a time that exists solely in the imagination. Yes, this is in part due to the film’s 3D presentation (which is admittedly decent enough for my seal of approval), but mostly it’s due to the care with which the artists and technicians designed and built the environments. In other words, the sets, the characters, the costumes, and most importantly the special effects are all appropriate and convincing, albeit with the kind of heightened reality one would expect from a Saturday matinee serial.

The film is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which began in serialized form in 1912 and would ultimately be collected into the first of eleven books in 1917. Its journey to the big screen was surprisingly long, beginning when Burroughs was approached by Bob Clampett in 1931 for permission to turn the first book into an animated film. Burroughs agreed, and five years later his son teamed up with Clampett to create test footage via rotoscoping and other hand-drawn techniques. This footage failed to impress exhibitors and investors, and the project was abandoned. It would languish until the 1980s, when the rights were bought for Disney. It would remain in development hell before the rights were returned, then picked up by Paramount, returned once more, then finally picked up again by Disney in 2007, at which point Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton was hired as director. Like Brad Bird with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, John Carter marks Stanton’s live-action debut.

This winding road was surely a blessing in disguise, as it’s hard to imagine this story being told without today’s advancements in computer technology. This would include motion capture, a process I continue to champion in spite of persistent backlash. I also think contemporary audiences would better appreciate the clever narrative technique of making Burroughs a character in the film – in this case, John Carter’s eighteen-year-old nephew (Daryl Sabara), who’s eventually advised to settle down and, perhaps, write a book. If this movie had been made seventy-five years ago, as was originally intended, this wouldn’t have worked at all. After all, the real Burroughs was still alive at the time. It would have seemed strange and perhaps even a bit self-congratulatory.

The plot, while at times difficult to follow, falls well within operatic conventions and is appropriate. It begins in the late 1860s, at which point Virginia-born John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a captain for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, has become apathetic and disillusioned. After finding a cave full of gold in the Southwestern desert and nearly being stabbed to death by a mysterious robed man who appeared out of nowhere, a strange metallic device somehow transports him to the habitable and populated planet Mars – or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. After learning how to navigate the planet’s lower gravitational pull, he soon finds himself embroiled in a bitter feud between three clans, one that, if not settled, could spell certain doom for the entire planet.

We first meet a race of tall, green-skinned, tusked, insectoid beings called Tharks – computer generated creatures animated from the movements of live actors. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), is a proud yet noble warrior, and he rescues Carter when the other Tharks are ready to tear him limb from limb. They initially speak a Martian language, but for simplicity’s sake, Carter is made to drink a liquid that, somehow or another, gets him (and the audience) to understand what they’re saying. Then there are two humanoid races, both covered in red tattoos, both engaging in deadly territorial disputes. There are the arrogant, manipulative Zodangans, led by the cocky Sab Than (Dominic West). Then there are the sensible citizens of the city of Helium, the Heliumites. Their leader, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), believes that the only way to achieve peace is for his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to marry Mors.

Carter initially refuses to take anyone’s side. But then Dejah enters his life. Apart from being a fierce warrior, she’s also a scientist who’s on the verge of making a groundbreaking discovery, one that could ensure the survival of her people and the welfare of the planet. But if she’s to succeed, she’ll need Carter’s help. He reluctantly agrees. At the same time, he must also help another Thark, the nurturing Sola (Samantha Morton), escape the wrath of the power-hungry Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Carter, Sola, and Dejah eventually travel by river to a sacred temple, where it’s possible Carter will get the answers he has been looking for. But he must be cautious; a fourth race of mystical, self-serving beings called Therns, led by the manipulative shape-shifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong), is ever watchful of the situation.

If you haven’t been able to follow along, take comfort in the fact that the real purpose of John Carter is to be a crowd pleaser. There are plenty of decent action sequences (aided in no small part by the special effects and, to an extent, the 3D), and there are several amusing sidekicks, none more memorable than the Martian equivalent of a dog, which clings to Carter like a boy who found a best friend. The dialogue and the performances are perhaps a bit theatrical, but keep in mind that this is an archetypal serial fantasy, in which half of the fun comes not only from recognizing the familiar but also from witnessing the impossible. Knowing this, I’m admittedly baffled by the criticism that the film is derivative. By now, we should all know that certain stories are intended to be formulaic. Would we enjoy them any other way?

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03/09/2012

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PG-13

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Walt Disney Pictures

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi