Review: ‘John Carter’

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series first appeared in 1912 with the immensely popular “A Princess of Mars.” Over the course of Burroughs’ life, he wrote 10 more books about Barsoom – or Mars, for us human folk – all of which became massively influential both during his lifetime and long after his death. Famous science-fiction authors as diverse as Arthur C. Clarke and H.P. Lovecraft were inspired by the series, and both George Lucas and James Cameron cited the books as explicit influences for “Star Wars” and “Avatar.” With such a wide swath of the American zeitgeist carved by Burroughs’ stories, it is surprising that it has taken a full century for Barsoom itself to appear on the silver screen in “John Carter.”

 

The plot revolves around the eponymous title character (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate veteran with a troubled past, as he is thrust into a war between Barsoom’s two remaining city-states: Zodanga, the aggressors, and Helium, the last stronghold against them. On the periphery are the nomadic Tharks, who play an important role as the movie progresses. By virtue of his transference to the red planet, Carter’s physical prowess is increased, making him highly coveted by all parties involved in the war, including the Therns (led by the always-creepy Mark Strong), an immortal race that is controlling the conflict from the shadows.

 

The plot deserves ample explanation because the film places so much emphasis on it. Though the action promised by trailers is present in spades, there are also long stretches of plot exposition in the second act. While the story imparted by that exposition is fairly entertaining, it is also ultimately forgettable because it brings very little to the table that feels fresh. Villains driven by chaos, a hostile race that slowly comes around and even a strange-yet-adorable animal companion who sticks by the hero in his darkest hour – we’ve seen it all before.

 

That being said, the filmmakers mostly keep the two-hour film moving, and along the way manage to turn in some truly incredible set pieces. A haunting scene of primal violence juxtaposed against tragedy briefly elevates the film above most of its contemporaries, and a brief moment of humor during the film’s climax grounds the otherwise larger-than-life sequence in a surprisingly effective way.

 

The film is directed by Andrew Stanton, known for his work with Pixar (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo” and “A Bug’s Life”), so perhaps it isn’t surprising that much of it comes across as a beautiful cartoon. Some will criticize Stanton’s work as derivative, but when the source is a hundred-year-old lode that is still being mined today, such critics ought to reconsider. The film does some things better than its contemporaries – the dialogue, while cheesy, is still less cringe-worthy than “Avatar” – and some things worse – swords are a poor substitute for lightsabers and Barsoom is no Pandora. “John Carter” is not a revelation by any means, but then again, it doesn’t have to be.

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