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John Carter

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/13/12 15:20:20

"An adventure movie pleasantly short on gravity."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"John Carter" is a grand adventure taken from a book published one hundred years ago, and age has some privileges: You can posit that Mars has a breathable atmosphere and basically-human inhabitants (among others), for instance. A pulp novel's job was to be entertaining and exciting, and an adaptation of such a book should do the same. Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's "A Princess of Mars" manages that in fine style.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) served for the South during the Civil War, and having lost his family, went to Arizona to seek his fortune alone. The Army tries to draft him to fight Apache, which leads to a strange cave of gold and a stranger medallion which transports him to another desert - this one on Mars (or "Barsoom", as the locals call it). There, he's captured by Tharks, ten-foot-tall warriors with four arms on their bodies and horns on their jaws, whose leader Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe) is intrigued by the amazing leaps "Virginia" can make in Barsoom's reduced gravity. Elsewhere on Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) - a brilliant scientist as well as a beautiful princess - wants no part of marrying Sab Than (Dominic West), even if it will prevent his parasite city of Zadanga from crushing her native Helium; she'd trust him even less if she knew about Than's mysterious, shape-shifting ally Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

John Carter has its issues, mostly on the ends. A bookend sequence set in 1881 that includes Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs (Carter's nephew and heir, apparently, though he would have been six that year) is nothing but bloat for an already long movie, an unnecessary delay in getting to the action at the start and part of what holds the audience hostage too long after the climax at the end. It's not alone there; the script also includes a symbolic-but-dumb action (though one which is at least immediately recognized as such) and a number of late exposition dumps that are as seemingly-contradictory as they are ultimately unimportant. Their main purpose seems to be setting up future installments that may never be made, and while this sort of focus on serialization and sloppiness with details may hearken back to the pulps of a century ago, they're annoying in a movie.

Still, when Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon focus on this movie, the result is immensely entertaining. The story may be old, the visuals from Burroughs's books and the matching lurid covers may have been co-opted by every space opera to follow, and the details of the world may have been made up as the author went along, but they have either stood the test of time or been well-modernized. There are hints of modern environmental and economic concerns in the villains' plots, and the dialogue is neither dated nor anachronistic. Stanton and company display a nifty knack for showing something cool and alien and demonstrating it through action rather than over-explaining it.

The world-building and effects are top-notch all-around; it's as technically proficient as any movie you'll see (including the 3D conversion, which is unnecessary but unobtrusive). It's not necessarily elaborate, but it feels cohesive; Tars, Sola, and the other CGI characters have personality to match their voices, and all of the details seem to fit together. The action is well-staged and while not always realistic (reduced gravity wouldn't really make John that much stronger), it's swashbuckling fun, with Stanton seldom crossing the line between what the audience will allow in a pulp milieu and what it will reject.

That's mostly true for the performances, too. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are passable, although it seems to take a while before their dime-novel dialogue feels right. They've got decent chemistry together, which is the important thing. Mark Strong and Dominic West are a decent brain & brawn combination as the villains, and the voice acting by the actors playing the Tharks - Dafoe, Morton, Thomas Haden Church, and Polly Walker - is uniformly good. If there's a sequel, a larger role must be found for James Purefoy, who seems to be having more fun than anyone else as Helium warrior Kantos Kan.

A follow up would be welcome (Burroughs wrote ten Barsoom novels, so there's plenty of material); while "John Carter" will likely not gain the reputation of a classic, Stanton tells a big story as well as anybody not named Lucas, Cameron, or Jackson. It wouldn't be a travesty if this was it, but "John Carter" is fun and well-executed enough that "The Gods of Mars" seems like a good risk.

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