Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review - John Carter

A Civil War veteran in search of riches finds himself magically transported to the alien planet of Mars. On Mars, John Carter finds himself thrust in the middle of an age old conflict between rival nations inhabiting the planet.

There have been so many movies we have already seen that were directly influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs series John Carter of Mars that finally seeing it on screen it could become a compare-it-to experience. Watching this space opera there are numerous threads that are instantly identifiable from previous science fiction movies you may have seen like "Star Wars," "The Matrix," "Avatar" or even more recently "Cowboys & Aliens" but those stories all initially borrowed from this film's source material. In other words, George Lucas, James Cameron, the Wachowski brothers, and Jon Favreau without a doubt read Princess of Mars and it influenced them enough to make their own thread of the tale. What I am slowly getting at is, it is hard not to compare this film to others that have come before it. The irony however is thick because the source material is what directly influenced the movies like "Star Wars" that feel like they've influenced "John Carter."

Despite being able to compare likeness with other science fiction/fantasy titles, "John Carter" stands on its own two feet. This is important because this property is a revered tale. A property that studios knew had the potential to become a viable franchise in a marketplace that is squirming for name recognizable franchises. That said, director Andrew Stanton delivers the goods on a story written almost one hundred years ago. He is able to create a new world that not only has a large scope, but more importantly, maintains my attention and intrigue throughout. Branding a film is no easy task, it has to sell audiences on why this story is important and why they should want to see further chapters. While it is very clear that the promotional campaign did not sell American audiences, 'Carter' does sell the audience over the course of the adventure with compelling and lovable characters, engaging conflict, and thrilling action that all combines to outweigh of few of the negatives that can be easily pointed out.

Andrew Stanton who had previously only directed animated features at Pixar like "Wall-e" and "Finding Nemo," made the transition to live-action with only a few hiccups. At Pixar, Stanton was use to the ability of refining a scene, mainly due to the slow process of animation, but here with live actors the results are different. There are some clunky and ill-paced material that might have been altered in Stanton's native setting of animation with more time to refine. On the other hand, his animation background seemed to really help with the scope of the story. Stanton wasn't afraid to whisk the audience around Mars (or as it is known in the film Barsoom). It was real important to me that he established how vast the planet is and without a doub, Stanton shows off how big Barsoom is in grandiose fashion.

The native people of Barsoom within "John Carter" present a perfect example of both the triumphs and failures within the scifi adventure. Take the Tharks for example, they are a race on nine foot tall, four armed creatures with tusks and are absolutely fascinating. Everything from their design, their native customs and hierarchy down to the execution is polished. Every time they are on screen, I was entranced. This can also been said about the creatures on Barsoom. From the giant white apes to Woola, a ten-legged dog like creature, all of the creatures left me wanting to see more of them. Then you have the Barsoomians, a race of human-like people who live on Mars aka Barsoom. While I completely understand the reasoning for human conditioning, the design of the cultures and differences is a bit lacking. The audience is introduced to two tribes that were once united but now fight for dominance over Barsoom. The only identifiable way of telling these two rival tribes apart is the color they wear in their identical wardrobes. One side wears red and the other blue. Simply put these groups are dull, their conflict is not, but the groups themselves come across just too bland.

One major reason "John Carter" works so well is the central figure, the hero of the story. John Carter is the kind of character that you fall for while watching the movie. There is a hint of skepticism, there are reasons to question if it will work, but by the end full confidence can be placed in John Carter. Much of that is to the credit of actor Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch becomes a hero on screen. The first ten minutes of the film I really struggled to wrap my head around where the film was going in tone and structure but Kitsch is the one constant. He is the catalyst you want to follow as the story moves forward and he does an able job of maintaining the heroic vibe throughout.

The princess does her fair share in making "John Carter" a memorable and rising adventure for audiences of all ages as well. You care about Dejah Thoris. She is the one human-like Barsoomian that I genuinely became invested in, just as our hero does. Not just for the simple chauvinistic reason (which are there), but there is an actual weight to the character and her plight. Cynicism could easily push audiences to scoff at this character we've seen told countless times, but remember she's an originator of this character-type, plus Lynn Collins does a more than able job portraying the princess of Mars.

"John Carter" is a flawed movie but regardless it is an enjoyable science fiction adventure with a lot to offer. It is easily the best live-action adventure Disney has produced since the first 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' If I'm comparing it other big swashbuckling space operas, at the bare minimum, it is far superior to all three of the Star Wars prequels combined. "John Carter" is a movie that left me craving more, it left me wanting a sequel and then some. It is an adventure that has so much more to tell, explore and even if this is the only chapter we see, it is a film that will continue to build its fan base throughout the years.