Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Carter / *** (PG-13)

John Carter: Taylor Kitsch
Dejah Thoris: Lynn Collins
Sab Than: Dominic West
Matai Shang: Mark Strong
Sola: Samantha Morton
Tars Tarkas: Willem Dafoe
Tardos Mors: Ciarán Hinds
Tal Hajus: Thomas Haden Church
Sarkoja: Polly Walker
Edgar Rice Burroughs: Daryl Sabara

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Andrew Stanton. Written by Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon. Based on the novel “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Running time: 132 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action).

I remember running around in the woods growing up in Maine during the summer months when I had all day to fill with my imagination. I would throw myself through dead branches and jump small ravines, pretending I’d been transplanted on some far away planet battling hordes of aliens to save the alien queen I’d come to love. Today, I often find my own son flinging himself around the house, with the sounds of explosions coming from his mouth. If he sees me spy him, he’ll stop and move to a room where I can’t see him. Surely, to preserve the illusion that whatever battle he’s fighting is happening far from the world he knows.

Apparently, Edgar Rice Burroughs had similar fantasies. His trick is that he wrote them down. In doing so he became one of the most famous pulp fiction novelists of the 20th Century and created one of the most influential science fiction sagas of our time. His character John Carter traveled to Mars in no less than eleven novels between the years of 1912 and 1964. He even predated Burroughs’ more popular Tarzan by a few months.

Burroughs’ adventures of John Carter became known as the Barsoom series, Barsoom being the name by which the native people of Mars called their planet. What insight to realize that a race from another world would not likely refer to their world with the same title as we do. In fact, much of John Carter’s adventures on the red planet have to do with the adventure of discovery, and so does the new Disney film adaptation of Carter’s first exploits on Mars. It is a grand adventure that will please a wide audience sick of over-edited action fare short on story.

“John Carter” doesn’t tell an incredibly original story, but it tells it well and doesn’t make the mistake of rushing through its plot points to get to the action. Carter’s story begins in the American Western Frontier, after the Civil War when the Confederate soldier Carter has given up on causes and is searching only for gold. He finds a cave and during a daring escape from Federal soldier finds himself confronted by a strange being in the cave. After a struggle, Carter finds himself in a territory he does not recognize. He tries to walk and finds it is like he never learned how.

Soon he encounters a strange race of multi-armed, green aliens and it becomes clear he is no longer on Earth. The planet’s lesser gravitational pull allows him greater strength and mobility. Despite a great barrier in communication, Carter befriends the leader of these aliens, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe, “Spider-Man”), and becomes the ward of his daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton, “Minority Report”).

Meanwhile, we learn of two warring humanoid races. One man, Sab Than (Dominic West, “The Wire”), is being helped by a member of the same alien race Carter encountered in the cave. On the other side is the ruler of the city of Helium, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds, “The Rite”), whose daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), is on the brink of discovering a new energy that the mysterious aliens don’t wish Helium to possess.

I could continue to synopsize for countless pages, but that’s something for an audience to witness. What director Andrew Stanton (“WALL•E”) does so well here is immerse the audience in the details of Martian life. He has the patience to create a world that the audience can come to recognize and feel comfortable in. Like other sci-fi classics, this world is filled with an abundance of different creatures, interesting ones that serve the story rather than merely acting as background noise.

The inhabitants of Barsoom are more advanced than the late 19th century that Carter comes from, but not so technologically advanced as to fill the screen with people being blasted by obligatory ray guns. There are guns, but the different societies here are more tribal and utilize swords and spears more so than the less interesting blasting weaponry.

The humanoid races travel on solar powered aircraft. I’ve read some criticism aimed at the technology of the film for being highly advanced but used in an arcane manner. I’m not so sure the technological advancements of Barsoom are so much further ahead than what we have in our world as they are simply different than our technology. This would explain why it seems strange to have open-air aircraft when doing battle against each other. We marched our soldiers against each other in lines that ensured death to the men in the front lines well into the 20th Century.

What I couldn’t understand before seeing the movie is why they would remove “of Mars” from the title “John Carter of Mars”. But, Stanton and his co-screenwriters do a good job reminding the audience that Carter was not always of Mars. This is just his beginning. I was also concerned that Taylor Kitsch, of the television show “Friday Night Lights”, didn’t yet have the acting chops to create a compelling and intelligent action hero. In the opening scenes, my fears did not subside; but by the end of the film, he’d won me over with the proper balance between gravity and humor.

Much criticism has also been aimed at the giant budget of the film, which will almost assuredly lead to a failure at the box office. It’s too bad that the studios have gotten to the point where they feel money equals success, when it also means greater risk. It’s a particular shame here, since the odds seem so set against the success of “John Carter”. It may not succeed on the same level as a “Lord of the Rings” or even some of Marvel Studios’ recent superhero outings in terms of layering a genre with depth of character, but it tells a good story in a very solid and classic manner. The filmmakers aren’t simplifying their storytelling for the popcorn crowd, and in doing so they’ve made an excellent popcorn entertainment that in an earlier decade would’ve ensured a long running franchise. Here’s hoping that somehow John Carter can continue to bound through the forest of a few more sequels.

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