John Carter of Mars (2012)

John Carter of Mars (2012) – (All the advertisements and publicity are referring to this movie as John Carter [even imdb!] but the title as shown onscreen during the movie is John Carter of Mars, so that’s how I’m referring to it.) The trailers to this film have been playing up “before Avatar, before Star Wars, there was John Carter.” It’s true. This movie is coming out exactly one hundred years after the initial publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, the first of his Barsoom series feature John Carter. It’s been a massive influence over science fiction writers ever since. (Sometime-sci-fi-writer Michael Crichton even named the main character on his non-sci-fi television series E.R. John Carter). Then again, the precursor is not always as good as the works that are influenced by it. Additionally, many a classic book has been tarnished by a shoddy film adaptation. So what’s the verdict on John Carter OF MARS then?

At the beginning of the movie, Daryl Sabara, of Spy Kids fame, plays Edgar Rice Burroughs, reading the journals of his late uncle. The bulk of the story is what is written in the journals. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Gambit from that mediocre Wolverine movie… also he was apparently in Snakes on a Plane) is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. A Union officer (Bryan Cranston, now apparently required to be in everything) is trying to get him to protect American territories in Arizona from Apaches. Some stuff happens and Carter ends up on Mars. I’m not entirely sure why the whole Carter vs. the Union officer was necessary to the story, but it was entertaining so no real complaints. Carter does not realize he’s on Mars for quite a while (and really, why would that even occur to him?) but is rather perplexed that gravity doesn’t seem to be as strong as he’s used to. Eventually he meets four-armed green alien Tars Tarkis (Willem Dafoe) who is the leader of the Tharks.

Meanwhile, the red men (basically tan humans with tattoos and blue blood) are at war with themselves. Sab Than (Dominic West from The Wire) of Zodanga has been given an unstoppable power by the mysterious Therns (led by Mark Strong, because who’s better at doing “evil” these days?) and is poised to conquer the city of Helium. Helium’s leader Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) has found the only way to broker peace with Sab Than is to marry his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, also from that mediocre Wolverine movie) to Sab Than. Being a princess in what is still technically a Disney movie, Dejah doesn’t take this news well and flees. Guess who she crosses path with.

The film succeeds on two strengths. The first is that there is a fully developed world established. That largely owes, I’m sure, to the fact that Burroughs wrote eleven volumes to his Barssom series (“Barsoom” being the Martian word for Mars). There are legends and civilizations and it all feels like it’s been reasonably well thought-out. The second and far more important strength of the movie is that it’s just fun. Kitsch and Collins aren’t the most lively actors in the world, but neither were the cast of the original Star Wars films. That being said, this movie will not go down as a classic on the same level as those movies the trailer so desperately wants you to associate it with. The script is co-written by Michael Chabon, author of the great novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Wonder Boys as well as co-screenwriter of Spider-Man 2 (the best of that series). The script hardly blazes any new trails, but it is solid and quite entertaining. Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-e, makes his live action directorial debut (though obviously there is still a ton of computer animation). To me it’s not quite as impressive a live action directorial debut as fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, though John Carter of Mars has a more involving story. Stanton’s visuals are expertly crafted, though the use of 3D in this film isn’t particularly effective. In a film like this 3D should enhance the spectacle, but I barely even noticed it. Still I enjoyed myself quite a bit with this one. Like I said before, it’s an 11-volume series so there are probably sequels a-comin’ and I’m looking forward to them…

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