Friday, March 9, 2012


This is the great-grandaddy of them all. Exactly 100 years ago Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame) wrote A Princess of Mars, telling the classic story of his "uncle" John Carter, a confederate army captain, who in 1868 was magically transported to the planet Mars via the power of the 9th ray! The book and it's 10 sequels, where quite popular in their day and provided varying degrees of inspiration for Superman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, and many other iconic franchises. Though the books have fallen into obscurity, nerd culture would likely not exist without them. The book, while not without precedent, actually pre-dates the term "Science Fiction"by nearly 20 years.

Now, after all these decades and numerous failed attempts, comes the film, titled simply John Carter and directed by none other than Andrew Stanton, the Pixar legend behind Finding Nemo and Wall*E in his live-action debut. Despite the generic title and terrible marketing campaign, I'm here to tell you that it's wonderful. Stanton has created a fully realized world full of monsters, majestic airships, walking cities and beautiful princesses.

Upon arriving on Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it, there is quite an amusing scene where Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, must learn to walk all over again in the planets low-gravity. On Barsoom, Carter has the strength to break chains as if they where paper and leap hundreds of feet with ease! Soon, he befriends the Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), leader of the Tharks, a nomadic race of 9 foot tall, 4 armed savages. In a later episode (the plot is very episodic), he rescues one of the "human" inhabitants of Barsoom from a fantastic airship battle, Princess Dajah Thois (Lynn Collins). Carter soon learns of her people's civil war and of the shadowy Therns, the gods of Barsoom, who feed on the destruction of civilizations!!! Sorry about all the exclamation points, but if there was ever a plot worthy of them, it's this one.

There's a lot of stuff going on in this movie, but it never feels like a chore to remember any of it. One of the films problems is it's more old-fashion pacing, but it may be the thing that helps us drink it in. The cast is quite good with the exception of Taylor Kitsch who is merely adequate as John Carter. He's not a lump, but he's not the movie star the part needs. But the strong supporting cast, including Lynn Collins and Mark Strong as the big bad, help pick up the slack. I was struck by the films force of imagination and personality. These characters are a lot of fun to hang around with, particularly Tars Tarkas. There's a nice running gag about how Tars thinks that Carters name is "Virginia." Michael Gacchino's score is also a stand out, a very successful ode to John Williams, despite the lack of a hum-able main theme, it may have the makings of a classic adventure soundtrack.

The film looks terrific. Despite the oodles of special effects, Stanton made it a point to film in as many real locations as possible giving the film a tactile quality missing in many modern block-busters such as Avatar or Tim Burtons Alice In Wonderland. The CGI used throughout the film is fantastic and imaginative. I particularly enjoyed how the mysterious 9th ray was depicted, and the giant, majestic airships that resemble nothing I've seen before. They're like two pronged dragonfly's crossed with Roman sailing ships.

This is Woola. You're gonna want one.
If I had to find fault beyond Kitsch's slightly stiff performance it would be that it's slow to start. The inclusion of Burroughs's meta-framing device is well done and all and it pays off like gangbusters, but it eats up time I'd rather spend swashbuckling on Barsoom. At the end of the day John Carter isn't as tight as Stanton's Pixar films. We could lose about 10 minutes throughout and still get the same effect.  Finally, there is simply not enough of Woola, the super fast, dog/toad monster who protects John Carter during his adventures. These problems should bring down my grade to a "B+" or maybe even a "B,"  but damn it I have to take into account the amount of fun I had watching this film. I walked out of the theater positively aglow. Whatever it's flaws, John Carter transported me to a place I'd never been to before and would like to go back to immediatlely, and at the end of the day, isn't that the promise of cinema?

Grade: A-

Note: I saw the film in IMAX 3D. I later learned that the film was shot in 2D and post-converted later. The quality of the post-conversion was at times good, but often just mediocre, therefore I recommend you see it in bright, colorful 2D.