Based on a pulp magazine character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs dating back to 1912, “John Carter” never really stood a chance at garnering a large box office pull (though most big-budget sci-fi films often do well overseas).
This is basically an epic of Roman proportions projected into space, namely Mars. Alas, don’t write this film off quite yet. With director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”) at the helm, “John Carter” jumps, as the title character becomes famous for in the film, between childish dialogue and some rather enjoyable action.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a man of few words, and that’s for the best in an epic that projects any number of Greek tales into a Martian context. Once a Confederate soldier, Carter lost his faith in god and country, seeking only gold. But just when he’s about to strike it rich, he comes across a strange technology that would shame the Enterprise’s beaming transporter in “Star Trek”. Suddenly, he’s in the middle of a Martian desert, having a bit of trouble adapting to the new gravitational pull.
Carter quickly learns it’s easier to jump long distances than walk, and because he’s used to harsher gravity, he’s stronger than everyone else –– a promising ability when he puts his abilities to work against Sab Than’s (Dominic West) hostile takeover of the planet. Even worse, Sab desires to take sexy heroine, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lyn Collins), as his queen, and that just won’t do for our chiseled hero who can’t seem to find a shirt throughout the entire film.
Don’t believe the negative press. “John Carter” is the first large scale, live-action Disney flick in a while worth its hefty $250 million budget. It’s not a perfect film, but that’s the price of Kitsch in a leading role. He played rigid well in “Friday Night Lights”, but it’s a bit much here. Thankfully, the director surrounds Kitsch with solid performers. Willem Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas, the all-digital alien leader of a Barsoomian (green aliens with four arms) tribe. There’s nothing like putting such a talented performer on stilts and completely transforming him through special effects. Then there’s Samantha Morton (you might remember her as the bald woman with foresight in “Minority Report”) as Tars’ daughter, Sola, who doesn’t quite fit the savage mold of her people.
Since “300”, West continues to play the all too unlikeable villain, the pawn in someone else’s greater plan. That greater plan belongs to Mark Strong as Matai Shang, one of many apparently all-knowing monk-like figures who secretly control the fate of Mars — and one day (cue dramatic music here) Earth. Strong has quite the reputation as the go-to villain, fighting foes like Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, and set to take on the Green Lantern in a sequel. It’s no stretch to see him here, yet there’s something comforting about his consistently enjoyable, if caricatured, performance.
As for the rest of this unlikely band of Martian misfits, many of them channel former Shakespearian-esque performances from HBO’s “Rome”, like Polly Walker as Sarkoja, James Purefoy as Kantos Kan and Ciarán Hinds as Tardos Mors. As for Collins’ performance as the object of the heroes’ desire, Dejah Thoris…eh (for better and worse).
The animation might appear cartoonish, but it’s forgivable. The formula is remarkably similar to Disney’s utter catastrophe, “Prince of Persia”, but much of the ideas work here since there is far more action and better acting. This is the epitome of a no-brainer…really, there’s no depth here, just mind-numbing entertainment from start to finish, with just enough cheesy and contrived moments to give it a passing grade. I’d even say this one is worth viewing more than once — a conclusion far grander than any “Transformers” or “Fast and Furious” film can claim. I honestly hope this one gets a shot at a second and even third installment. The results will be much more promising if one of Pixar’s golden boys, Stanton, continues to fine tune his live-action filmmaking abilities, as did Brad Bird (“The Incredibles” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol).
Like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Shadow and any number of pulp heroes, “John Carter” stems from a long tradition of characters printed on cheap paper that dissolve the boundaries between sci-fi, horror, fantasy and action. It’s just so fun. Yet this film manages to incorporate nostalgia into a splendid romp that requires no pre-knowledge. Who wouldn’t want to see Conan take on flying legions with a sword and laser gun: that’s “John Carter of Mars”.