REVIEW: John Carter [2012]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: March 9th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): Andrew Stanton
Writer(s): Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon /
Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel A Princess of Mars)

“Vir-gin-ya, Vir-gin-ya, Vir-gin-ya!”

When you’re working from a novel written almost a century ago about a planet we still have yet to truly discover, it would be easy to find yourself going off track onto a cheesy, archaic path of exposition. John Carter is not without its moments of superfluity and at over two hours in length does at times find itself sprawling out into an epic beyond the needs of the story being told. However, writer/director Andrew Stanton and company still manage to intrigue with their desert wasteland of Mars and the mythology of the planet’s myriad of races. Not quite a strict adaptation of Edgar Rice BurroughsA Princess of Mars considering its use of species from subsequent novels in the series as well as beefing up of the phenomenon of light, the spirit of the book is retained and the author’s own inclusion gives an air of plausible science fiction inside its Dune meets Star Wars cinematic mold.

Beginning with a brief introduction to the battle of warring factions within the Red Martian race by Tars Tarkas’ (Willem Dafoe) narration, we’re thrust into the fight as the Jeddak (King) of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), looks to decimate a fleet of Helium ships sailing the skies under the flag of Jeddak Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds). A brutal, chaotic dance ensues as swords clash before a bluish substance disintegrates all but Sab Than. A trio of Therns—a religious sect—arrive and we discover light’s ninth ray: a force allowing energy to be created from thin air, more powerful than Earth’s seven rays and Mars’ eighth allowing flight. Thern leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong) explains how the Goddess Iss—whom they protect—wishes Sab Than to possess the gift while under their leadership. These bald creatures transform identities, transport between worlds, and have picked their side by letting Zodanga take Barsoom’s (Mars) reins.

Confused yet? All this happens in the first few minutes and while it may seem daunting at first, our return to the Red Planet later will help flesh out details once we learn the history alongside John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). A Captain from the Confederacy who fought in the American Civil War, Carter’s quest for gold while running from a tragic past finds him caught in the fight between Arizona settlers and Apache. Looking to recruit him by force, Captain James K. Powell (Bryan Cranston) awakens the retired soldier from solitude’s stagnancy and drives him towards the desert caves hiding the means of space travel. With a Thern’s medallion, Carter soon finds himself laying in the sand a world away. Discovering his capacity to float and jump with minimal force, it isn’t until he stumbles on a den of Thark eggs that he realizes Arizona is long gone.

It’s here where the adventure begins as the Green Martian Tharks take the stranger in as a curiosity amongst the new litter of communal babies soon fought over by their women. Discarded to Sola (Samantha Morton)—a disgraced Thark branded so often for insolence that the next will be her last—Carter becomes a coveted prize for Jeddak Tars Tarkas. Headstrong and constantly seeking escape, the human toes a dangerous line by refusing to show the kingdom his anti-gravity leaps despite Tars already having seen it before. When a Heluim ship enters their view with two Zodanga crafts in pursuit, Carter must end his stubbornness to save Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins)—the Helium Jeddak’s daughter recently bequeathed to Sab Than in hopes peace. The drive to be heroic kicks in and his bravery cements him as a warrior to Tars, a savior to Helium, and a danger to the Therns’ plan of giving Barsoom to Zodanga.

The science fiction epic then continues as Carter, Dejah, Sola, and their cute dog-like speedster beast escape into the desert. Hoping to find his way back home, Dejah intends to recruit the human to save Barsoom from Sab Than’s evil ways. A scientist who stumbled upon the power of the ninth ray herself, her discovery allows the Therns to be revealed as more than just religious zealots lording over the Martians. Romance develops—to no one’s surprise—and the climactic battle containing Tharks and Reds advances closer with every step. Yes, good and evil is easily discerned and flashbacks to Carter’s life before Arizona overtly foreshadow his eventual acquiescence to join the fray, but with some stunning computer animation on behalf of the Tharks’ six limbs and jawboned horns as well as the solar-powered aircraft in the sky, John Carter doesn’t disappoint in aesthetic or action.

Nothing necessarily fresh or unique happens, but that isn’t really the fault of Stanton or Burroughs considering everything it appears to copy in fact copied it decades ago. Using scientist Percival Lowell‘s 1895 book entitled Mars as a basis for the environment created, Edgar Rice Burroughs became the visionary who inspired Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and others. Making the arid planet of Mars a former Earth-like world of water and vegetation allows audiences to feel compassion for its plight—without too heavy-handed a message on behalf of Strong’s faux deity about how we’re on our way to the same tragic end—and accept that it’s inhabitants are for the most part humanoid. Implausible, fantastical, and possessed of science we cannot wield, rooting the story in an idea of coexisting societies with travel to and fro causes us to suspend disbelief and hope for the day it all comes true.

As such, John Carter is a resounding success for creating a world we can escape to by allowing our entry point—the author himself played by Daryl Sabara—share it all for our entertainment. Unfortunately, while the desert sands recall David Lynch‘s exotic Dune, so does Lynn Collins’ rather one-dimensional performance as the badass princess forever underestimated. I hate to say it, but keeping her a stereotypical waif needing saving may have been more effective since it’s often hard to believe she needs Carter. West is nicely villainous, Hinds the gracious leader shoved into a corner, Dafoe and motion-capture company surprisingly life-like, and Strong deliciously malevolent as the misguided and immovable force pulling strings. As far as our lead Taylor Kitsch is concerned, he portrays the laconic, troubled, and unwilling hero with aplomb. His is a solid performance in a solid film easily dismissed by critics but soon to find the cult following for unorthodox success.

[1] Lynn Collins stars as Dejah Thoris and Taylor Kitsch stars as John Carter in Walt Disney Pictures’ John Carter (2012)
[2] Taylor Kitsch stars as John Carter in Walt Disney Pictures’ John Carter (2012)
[3] Dominic West stars as Sab Than in Walt Disney Pictures’ John Carter (2012)

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