Disney and the fine folks behind the expensive $250 million dollar “John Carter” would like you to know that if it wasn’t for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation, there would be no George Lucas and “Star Wars”, James Cameron and “Avatar”, Steven Spielberg, and all the other sci-fi movies over the years that you kids love so much. So if you happen to see some similarities, or familiar looking action beats in “John Carter” to the films of those three men and others (but especially Lucas’ original “Star Wars” movies), you should absolutely ignore it, because Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter hero came first. And being first counts for something, right? Maybe.
Based on Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars”, 2012’s “John Carter” stars Taylor Kitsch, putting away the football pads from his “Friday Night Lights” days to take up the mantle of your latest and greatest sci-fi action hero. (Besides “John Carter”, Kitsch also has Peter Berg’s “Battleship” on tap for this year, effectively doubling down on his quest for the sci-fi action title.) John Carter is not a man to be messed with, a disposition not helped by having been involved in the bloody American Civil War. While searching for gold in Arizona (and dodging Indian arrows, as well as fighting off Union cavalrymen and Bryan Cranston), Carter finds himself transported to the arid landscape of Mars. (Note to future prospectors: avoid touching strange medallions in caves.) It isn’t long before Carter discovers that the alien planet’s gravity gives him cool new abilities — like being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound (incredibly helpful, this) and increased strength (also not too shabby). A good thing, too, because a war for the fate of Mars (or Barsoom as the locals call it) is about to ravage the entire planet.
While navigating the new, hazardous world of Mars and its indigenous population, the bellicose Tharks (8-foot tall aliens with four arms and two legs, two of whom are played by Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe in mo-cap suits), Carter meets the beautiful Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, Silverfox from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It’s love at first sight. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. Honestly, Collins is gorgeous and Kitsch is handsome and all, but the romantic quotient of “John Carter” is lacking. Collins has pretty much the same chemistry with Kitsch that she does with the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West), who is part of a rival Martian group that she has been betrothed to by her father (Ciarin Hinds) in hopes of saving their world from their own little civil war. At least Sab Than has a cool name. I would have much preferred to watch a movie called “Sab Than” than “John Carter”. More personality, you know? Mark Strong as the evil mastermind of the whole thing is appropriately Mark Strong-like. Give him a little bit more shade of red and he could be playing Sinestro (from the disastrous “Green Lantern” movie) all over again.
But hey, if you’ve seen the film’s trailers, you’re probably not watching “John Carter” hoping for believable romance or life-changing human drama. The action is the thing, and here, former Pixar man Andrew Stanton (making his live-action feature film debut after delivering CG gems like “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”) certainly earns his bones. “John Carter” features plenty of nifty action sequences, even if the vast majority of them are too dependent on CGI. That’s to be expected in today’s world, where state-of-the-art battlefields featuring 8-foot tall green-skinned aliens can be done as easily as sitting in your mom’s basement. The movie moves well, with very few dull spots in-between all the fighting. This is helped by the fact that John Carter does not shy away from battle. Dude loves a good swordfight. It’s too bad most of them takes place in such a dreary, brown landscape, that even the cool looking alien airships can’t quite lend enough color. This is the same issue I had with Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals”, by the way.
I’ll say this for him: Taylor Kitsch looks like he can carry an action movie — physically, anyway. I personally liked Kitsch during his “Friday Night Lights” days, but he never struck me as having to work all that hard as Tim Riggins. (I’ve only seen the first season of the show, so who knows, he might have improved dramatically in the later seasons.) So I wasn’t really surprised that Kitsch’s John Carter is more often than not overshadowed by the spindly aliens, his fiery leading lady, or his new Martian mutt. But whereas the hero looks like a cookie cutter Hollywood leading man, his exotic looking co-star Lynn Collins is anything but. Which isn’t to say Kitsch does a bad job, but given the material, his jumping and fighting has more personality than some of his dialogue. At least the Tharks are great to look at, even if I had a hard time telling them apart from one another. Like I always say, you can never go wrong with 8-foot tall green-skinned aliens goofing off onscreen and huge white apes trying to bash your head in.
Edgar Rice Burroughs came before “Star Wars” and “Avatar”, which should count for something, right? Not really, especially when the vast majority of the film’s audience will have no idea who this Edgar guy is. Director Andrew Stanton, whose love for the original Burroughs text is well-documented, should still get credit for crafting a fine, if not exactly challenging adventure (in terms of story, though I’m sure the actual production of the film was incredibly challenging), an ode to the childhood fanboy in him. The man clearly adores this stuff, and in many ways, that comes through in the finished product. It’s really not “John Carter’s” fault that it looks too familiar, since “A Princess of Mars” came out over a century ago, and has been picked pretty clean by other filmmakers since. By the way: don’t spend the extra money for 3D. Even with the hero’s propensity for leaping around the screen, it’s not worth it.
Andrew Stanton (director) / Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs (story “A Princess of Mars”)
CAST: Taylor Kitsch … John Carter
Lynn Collins … Dejah Thoris
Samantha Morton … Sola
Willem Dafoe … Tars Tarkas
Thomas Haden Church … Tal Hajus
Mark Strong … Matai Shang
Ciarán Hinds … Tardos Mors
Dominic West … Sab Than
James Purefoy … Kantos Kan
Bryan Cranston … Powell
Polly Walker … Sarkoja
Daryl Sabara … Edgar Rice Burroughs