JOHN CARTER Review

By this time it has been decided that "John Carter" is officially a flop. Sadly, this likely means Disney will not be pouring their money into a sequel for this massive loss which is really a shame because despite the mixed reviews and soft response to the film this is a sprawling adventure with a great imagination and scope to match. I have never read the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels on which this is based, but one can easily tell how this work indeed inspired the likes of "Star Wars" and countless other sci-fi epics. Director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E and Finding Nemo) was the main reason I held out hope for this film and in the end his storytelling ability is what overshadows his missteps. I can only imagine the differences that come with switching from directing animated films to that of a live action film of this size. For a first timer Stanton has done a wonderful job of keeping a rather complex story within certain archetypes and not allowing his narrative to run away with the movie. He probably could have picked a more charismatic leading man as Taylor Kitsch, while looking every bit the part, does not do well to help me understand why Stanton along with directors Peter Berg and Oliver Stone have chosen him to headline their films this year. Kitsch who seems to have been a valuable part of the underrated "Friday Night Lights" series has only had one other starring role in the awful "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and I felt that same kind of emptiness here from him. Lucky for Kitsch that his supporting cast is full of reliable actors like Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, and Bryan Cranston. Whether they are bringing life to the green-skinned race of Tharks or simply populating the mythology of Burrough's tale these are the real reasons this Mars adventure is brought to life.

Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is the leader of the Therns,
the controllers of the universe.
I was unfamiliar with the stories of John Carter and going in had no real idea of where the story was heading despite the notion I could probably guess. This is classic adventure storytelling that hits all the right marks while giving us a really engaging backdrop. I have always been a sucker for sci-fi stories with lush back stories and mythologies that span further than just our own world. "John Carter" does this in spades. It starts interestingly enough in the late 1800's with his death as he recruits his young nephew to come take care of his estate which turns out to only be a front to allow his nephew the time to get caught up on what Mr. Carter's life has been like for the past thirteen years. Carter's own story starts as the civil war veteran is asked by the army to return, but has come to the decision that every side has their reasons for fighting, that neither is particularly right and that he has no interest in fighting for either one. In trying to escape he stumbles upon a cave with what feel like familiar markings. Inside he encounters a man who quickly tries to kill him but not before accidentally sending our protagonist to the red planet.

To its natives, Mars is known as Barsoom and once he arrives Carter is able to leap enormous distances and somehow has superhuman strength because of something having to do with his bone density and the alien conditions. He is captured by the Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe) and is immediately selected to fight for them because of these new abilities. This will help as Barsoom is in the middle of a civil war. The kingdoms of Zodanga and Helium are on the brink of destroying one another when Zodanga's leader Sab Than (Dominic West) proposes a peace with Helium in exchange for its rulers Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) daughters hand in marriage. Naturally, the princess is a rather fiesty intelligent being who will not bow so easily to a meat headed ruler who is full of arrogance. As princess Dejah Thoris Lynn Collins displays more charisma than her counterpart Kitsch, but does nothing to make her character stand out among the legions of heroic princess's of this genre's past. Some way or another John Carter saves the princess as she tries to escape and they become bound to this journey together that orders them to stop the Zodanga before they destroy Helium (though Carter has a problem choosing sides until the princess shows some weaknesses for him). There is also the important aspect of the Therns, a biblical like group of baldies in white robes led by the always evil Mark Strong. They are guiding this whole extravaganza as they are the Gods who control the universe and are behind Sab Than's invasion and craving for power. These, in short, are John Carters real enemies. You got all of that, right?

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch)
face off for the first time.
The good news is that director Stanton and his team have developed such a lovely movie to look at the scope matches that of the story. Though in the beginning we are slightly confused as to who is who and how these guys play into that, it is fairly easy to understand by the time it comes down to the simple goal of stopping the princess from marrying the bad guy. What is most impressive about the film for me was not just the way Stanton was able to navigate through the multiple characters and give them each credible role with the money spent on the project feeling at least justified, no what I was really impressed with was the fact alot of what was going on here felt credible in the first place. It is hard to take half-naked Mars people dressed as if it was ancient Rome interacting with four-armed humongous aliens seriously, it must have been even harder for Stanton to convince his actors that this was all going to turn out to be awesome. Here in lies the problem I have with Kitsch as the lead. He seems to be really trying to make this work, I'll give him that and the argument can even be made that he doesn't seem to buy into it because his character is genuinely startled at where he is in the universe. It is more than this though, Kitsch never convinces me he isn't holding in laughing at the whole thing. Like a popular kid on a playground of nerds his whole persona screams a type of arrogance that doesn't feel like it fits in Burrough's characters skin. This causes a hesitation on the part of the audience to fully give into the idea that this movie actually is pretty cool.

Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) is the leader of the Tharks,
an alien race that lives on Mars. 
What it comes down to is the knowledge that if I were a 10 year-old I would have no doubt, absolutely loved this. I think this will certainly enthrall anyone under the age of 12 since those tweens will likely think they are too cool for this. Being a 25 year-old though, I want to be transported back to that place where I was at 10; simply blown away by a movie and the world that it creates on screen. I want to be taken to that place where my imagination can only attempt to match the characters and places that have been created. I can see how "John Carter" might do this for a whole new generation and even those, like myself who love "Star Wars" and were taken aback by the visuals of "Avatar" might be engaged but it doesn't reach the heights of blowing me away, it simply entertained me. There is nothing wrong with this, but I am sure Disney was counting on much more than entertainment when they sank the reported $250 million into the project. I hate to even doubt the project because I honestly do want to see more from it; at the very least it is an intriguing opening chapter that deserves to be expanded on, whether Stanton will get that chance or not will likely depend on the worldwide box office return, but if that day comes I will be anxiously awaiting John Carter's next adventure, with hopes that Taylor Kitsch has found a more genuine place within himself to apply to the title character.