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Movie Review – John Carter (2012) (PG-13)

Burroughs’ Space Opera is coming to the big screen

Like all good space operas, John Carter abandons virtually all restraint to common sense and dives headfirst into pure intergalactic melodrama. Despite the obvious narrative anchors to reality – rival tribes, political corruption, romance, technological advancements – we are immersed in a world and time that exist only in the imagination. Yes, that’s partly down to the film’s 3D presentation (which is admittedly decent enough for my stamp of approval), but it’s mostly down to the care with which the artists and technicians designed and constructed the environments. In other words, the sets, characters, costumes, and most importantly, the special effects are all appropriate and compelling, but with the kind of heightened reality one would expect from a Saturday matinee series.

The film is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs A princess from Mars, which began as a serial in 1912 and would eventually be collected into the first of eleven books in 1917. Its journey to the big screen was surprisingly long, beginning when Burroughs was approached by Bob Clampett in 1931 for permission to turn the first book into an animated film. Burroughs agreed, and five years later his son partnered with Clampett to create test images via rotoscoping and other hand-drawn techniques. These images failed to impress exhibitors and investors and the project was abandoned. It would languish until the 1980s, when the rights were purchased for Disney. It would sit in development hell before the rights were returned, then picked up by Paramount, returned once more, and then finally picked up by Disney in 2007, when Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton was hired as director. Like Brad Bird with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, John Carter marks Stanton’s live debut.

This winding road was surely a blessing in disguise, as it’s hard to imagine this story being told without today’s advancements in computer technology. This would include motion capture, a process I continue to champion despite the lingering backlash. I also think contemporary audiences would better appreciate the clever narrative technique of casting Burroughs as a character in the film – in this case, John Carter’s eighteen-year-old nephew (Daryl Sabara), who was eventually advised to settle down and maybe write a book. If this movie had been made seventy-five years ago, as originally planned, it wouldn’t have worked at all. After all, the real Burroughs was still alive at the time. It would have seemed strange and maybe even a little self-satisfied.

The plot, while sometimes difficult to follow, fits well within operatic conventions and is appropriate. It begins in the late 1860s, when John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), born in Virginia, a captain in the Confederate army during the Civil War, has become apathetic and disillusioned. After finding a cave full of gold in the desert southwest and nearly being stabbed to death by a mysterious robed man who appeared out of nowhere, a strange metallic device somehow transports him. another on the habitable, populated planet Mars – or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. After learning to navigate the planet’s lower gravitational pull, he soon finds himself embroiled in a bitter feud between three clans, a feud that, if left unsettled, could mean certain doom for the entire planet.

We first encounter a race of tall, green-skinned, tusk-like insectoid beings called Tharks – computer-generated creatures brought to life from the movements of live actors. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), is a proud but noble warrior, and he rescues Carter when the other Tharks are ready to tear him apart limb by limb. They initially speak a Martian language, but for simplicity Carter is forced to drink a liquid that somehow allows him (and the audience) to understand what they are saying. Then there are two humanoid races, both covered in red tattoos, both engaged in deadly territorial disputes. There are the arrogant and manipulative Zodangans, led by the arrogant Sab Than (Dominic West). Then there are the sensible citizens of Helium City, the Heliumites. Their leader, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), believes the only way to achieve peace is for his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to marry Mors.

Carter initially refuses to take sides with anyone. But then Dejah comes into his life. Besides being a fierce warrior, she is also a scientist who is about to make a revolutionary discovery, which could ensure the survival of her people and the well-being of the planet. But if she wants to succeed, she will need Carter’s help. He reluctantly accepts. At the same time, he must also help another Thark, nurturer Sola (Samantha Morton), escape the wrath of the power-hungry Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Carter, Sola, and Dejah end up traveling by river to a sacred temple, where it’s possible Carter will get the answers he’s been looking for. But he must be careful; a fourth race of mystical, self-serving beings called Therns, led by manipulative shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong), is ever watchful.

If you haven’t been able to follow, take comfort in the fact that the true purpose of John Carter is to be a crowd pleaser. There are plenty of decent action sequences (helped in large part by special effects and, to some extent, 3D), and there are several amusing sidekicks, none more memorable than the Martian equivalent of a dog, who clings to Carter like a boy who has found a best friend. The dialogues and performances may be a little theatrical, but bear in mind that this is an archetypal serial fantasy, in which half the fun comes not just from acknowledging the familiar but also from the fact to witness the impossible. Knowing this, I am admittedly taken aback by the criticism that the film is derivative. By now we should all know that some stories are meant to be stereotyped. Would we enjoy it otherwise?

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