John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic series of sci-novels, arrives encumbered by 100 years of anticipation and unavoidable (though perhaps unfair and unnecessary) talk about its gigantic budget, piss-poor marketing and lack of mainstream appeal. I can’t remember any film in recent memory that has been more under a microscope than this one, and I certainly have my own opinions about how Disney has handled the film and its chances of actually launching a franchise as a result. But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, the question is simply how does John Carter fare as a movie, and I’m happy to report that, despite some undeniable flaws, the film works amazingly well more often than not, and rightfully earns its spot in the pantheon of enjoyable sci-fi adventures.

Taylor Kitsch stars as the titular character, a veteran Civil War cavalryman turned grumpy prospector who, while on the run from some murderous Apaches, hides in a cave wherein he is mysteriously transported to Mars. Of course, Carter doesn’t immediately realize he is on Mars…he just knows something is up when he discovers a different gravitational pull has made it possible for him to leap hundreds of feet in the air, and he is soon found and captured by a tribe of four-armed green men known as Tharks. The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), is both amused and impressed by Carter’s leaping ability and superhuman strength, and hopes to recruit him to fight alongside his band of warriors.

Carter wants nothing to do with any of it, though he is too naturally heroic to not intervene when a giant air battle suddenly begins raging over the Thark’s city. This is the war between Helium (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys), two cities populated by “red martians,” who look just like humans, if humans were covered in stylish red Henna tattoos. Carter involves himself in the battle and rescues the beautiful Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who has fled her home city to avoid a forced marriage to evil Zodanga prince Sab Than (Dominic West). Than promises an end to the war if awarded Thoris’ hand in marriage, though really he plans to use the event to stage an all-out assault on Helium, utilizing a new deadly super-weapon provided to him by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the Therns, a race of god-like shape-shifters obsessed with controlling the events on Mars. If any of you are reading this paragraph and think this sounds pretty complicated, I sympathize, and can only say that it is slightly easier to follow when you’re actually watching the thing. Slightly.

Anyway, long story short, Dejah Thoris sees in Carter the same potential that Tars Tarkus does. After first informing him that he is indeed on Mars (or “Barsoom,” as it is known to its inhabitants), she tries to convince him to help her save Helium, and all of Mars, from the destructive might of Sab Than and Zodanga. Carter, having seen enough war on Earth, would rather just find a way to get back home, but as his feelings for Thoris begin to grow (and vice versa), he begins to accept his destiny and eventually decides to become the hero the planet needs. Which is good, because this is an action movie, and it would be pretty boring if he didn’t.

Let’s get this out of the way – director Andrew Stanton (making his live-action debut, following Pixar films like Finding Nemo and Wall-E) and his co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have taken numerous liberties with the source material. The film is primarily based on the first novel in the Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, but Stanton and company have also mixed in elements from some of the later novels (like the Therns, who didn’t appear until book two) in order to expand the story and add a more epic feel to the procedures. They have also added in a few new touches of their own. Some of their changes are for the better (I like that Carter’s transportation to Mars is actually explained, and like even better that he doesn’t just instantly realize he is on Mars), while others don’t work quite as well (an added tragic back-story for Carter doesn’t really add all that much to the character, and having him ingest a liquid that helps him immediately understand the planet’s language, rather than just have him learn it as he did in the novels, seems like the laziest sort of cheat). Most of the changes are a simple result of trying to streamline a fairly sprawling story with an elaborately developed mythology.

I suppose these changes will upset some die-hard fans of Burroughs’ work, since a common trait among nerds (of which I proudly claim myself, so I don’t mean it as an insulting term) is the inability to understand the art of adaptation, or realize that sometimes a completely faithful translation just wouldn’t make a very good movie. I think that’s the case here – though the original novels are still fun reads, they’re also relics of a pulp age and as such suffer from some common problems of that time, such as fairly blatant racism and sexism, not to mention odd pacing choices that wouldn’t work for a movie (don’t get me wrong, this movie has pacing issues of its own, but heck, at least its villain is a constant presence throughout the movie, unlike in the novel where he is suddenly inserted into the story in the third act). What’s important is whether the spirit of the source material survives intact, and I believe it has here. This is as much a tribute to Burroughs’ creation as it is an adaptation, and it maintains the same sort of wonderment and exciting adventure that made the novels such classics.

Is it perfect? No, it’s not…though it’s hard to believe such an ambitious project ever could be. Still, I don’t want to be overly forgiving here, so I’ll admit Stanton at times struggles with juggling the film’s multiple story threads, making the story overly convoluted at times. A wrap-around segment actually involving Burroughs as a character probably seemed like a neat idea (and pays lip-service to the original novel’s introductions, which insinuated Carter was actually the author’s uncle) but is perhaps a little too corny for its own good. The overall plans and motives of the villainous Therns are sort of unclear, which is annoying since it is technically their machinations that are supposed to set everything in motion. And, like I said, the pacing could be a little better, as the film has the tendency to drag whenever characters begin spouting on about the various politics and conflicts of Mars (shaving about 15 or 20 minutes off the overall running time wouldn’t really be the worst thing in the world here).

But, in my opinion, the good outweighs the bad, and what does work is often absolutely awesome. For instance, there’s Woola, the giant six-legged dog-like creature that befriends Carter and becomes his loyal companion. Creatures like this are often played for cheap laughs in movies like these, but Woola’s playful spirit and fierce loyalty actually make him one of the film’s best characters – I’d even go so far as to say he’s up there among the best sci-fi sidekicks there ever has been. Tars Tarkas, too, is a lot more complex of a character than he may at first seem, initially appearing to be a vicious warrior, but soon revealing an undeniable undercurrent of humanity (so to speak). The scenes with Carter among the Tharks are some of the film’s best moments, not only because they are impressive CG creations, but because of the performances of the actors who really bring them to life (besides Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church also play key Tharks). And the film’s action sequences range from pretty good to excellent.

Meanwhile, the film’s best character is without a doubt Dejah Thoris. Though Burroughs’ novels alluded to her strength and fighting abilities, she was usually cast as the damsel in distress for Carter to save. This version of Thoris is having none of that, presented here as Carter’s equal in bravery and toughness (and his clear superior in intelligence), but without sacrificing any of her femininity or emotion. There’s been a lot of talk about how this film hasn’t appealed to female audiences, so it’s a damn shame Disney didn’t put more work into highlighting Thoris in the promotional campaign. She is definitely one of the best female characters ever in a sci-fi movie, and is exactly the sort of hero and role model that you’d want young girls to look up to. Though the romance between Carter and Thoris forms somewhat conveniently fast in the film, I can’t criticize it too much, because I can’t imagine any red-blooded male not instantly falling for her.

And then there’s John Carter himself. I know some have said Kitsch is too flat and monotone of an actor to anchor a piece like this, but I thought he made for a pretty good Carter. He doesn’t quite pull of the gravitas of Carter’s guilt-ridden past, but then that was one of the story beats I could have lived without anyway. He does bring a distinct charm to the role, though, and is particularly good during the character’s subtle comic moments, whenever he is absolutely flustered by what is going on around him. And when the film requires him to be a bad-ass, he does so with a steely-eyed intensity that felt absolutely appropriate. Maybe it’s not a performance for the ages or anything, but it’s perfectly good work for a film of this kind.

What I most like about John Carter is that, as I hoped for, it’s a nice throwback to the days when sci-fi movies like this were more concerned with being “fun” than they are with being “dark” or “cool.” Just as Carter is transported to Mars, while watching the film I was transported to my childhood, when movies like Krull, Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian and The Last Starfighter ruled the day. Here is an old-fashioned pulp spectacle like those, brought to thrilling life using the best of modern technology. It embraces its silliness and absurdity, but without ever devolving into camp. Maybe most modern audiences have outgrown this sort of non-cynical escapist approach, but I guess I haven’t, and I’m glad Andrew Stanton hasn’t, either. John Carter aims high and occasionally stumbles, but to me it still represents the right sort of blockbuster that I wish we got more of today. A combination of Disney’s mishandling and audience apathy (ironically brought on by decades worth of similar films inspired by Burroughs’ novel) has probably ensured this will be a stand-alone film rather than the franchise starter it clearly wanted to be. That’s a shame, but I’m glad the project’s long road to the big-screen at least ended with one great sci-fi spectacle. Worth the hundred year wait? I think so.

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