I'm not here to evaluate the place of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series in the history of science fiction or tell you about all of the other science fiction books and movies that "borrowed" from its storylines and characters. Nor am I here to speculate how much money it will make or talk about how poorly the marketing for the film may have been early on. I'm going to assume you all know that how much money a film makes is no measure of its quality. Because honestly, none of those things have anything to do with whether JOHN CARTER, the film, is any damn good. And all of those people who have written articles about how the film is going to bomb, or worse, people who actively wish JOHN CARTER (or any film for that matter) fails financially, those folks are the scum of the the universe I write about.
JOHN CARTER is the kind of story we rarely see told in film, despite its plot getting ripped off for a century. Writer-director Andrew Stanton (FINDING NEMO; WALL-E) has chosen to remain largely faithful to his source material, therefore, we get a piece of historical science fiction told from the point of view of citizens living 100 years ago. The science is beyond flawed (and if you judge JOHN CARTER on its science, you truly are missing the point), it features green martians with four arms shooting fancy versions of muskets, breathable air, and evidence of a crumbling city and dying planet that may yet be saved with the correct intervention.
But this film also features sweeping, magnificent adventure and action, Martian landscapes that are a beautiful as they are barren, and a race of handsome human-like Martians with red tattoos on their faces and very little clothing. In particular, JOHN CARTER features the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, played forcefully and with much regality by Lynn Collins, who steals this movie outright from all of the men and aliens surrounding her. She easily outperforms the too-stoic Taylor Kitsch as Carter, a Civil War cavalry man who fought for the south and, in the process, made the ultimate sacrifice. Kitsch isn't terrible, but there are some real missed opportunities with his performance, especially surrounding his ability to almost defy gravity and leap hundreds of yards in one bound. Why isn't he more excited about the fact that he can do this?
Fortunately for us, Kitsch is surrounded by more expressive (and mostly British) actors like Dominic West (as the puppet dictator Sab Than), Mark Strong as the all-knowing controller Matai Shang, James Purefoy, and Ciarán Hinds as Dejah's father, Tardos Mors. Most impressively, Cater also keeps company with a whole lot of green Martians, including those played (via motion-capture) by Polly Walker, Thomas Hayden Church, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe as the benevolent leader Tars Tarkas, who friendship with Carter was, for me, more of the emotional core of this film than the fledgling love affair between Carter and Dejah Thoris.
To dive into the politics and relationships between the different warring parties of Mars (known as Barsoom by the locals) is unnecessary, but what's great about the complexities of that portion of the story is that Stanton and fellow screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are fairly faithful to the way those details are plotted out in the books. They haven't exactly "filmed the book," but they have come extremely close to nailing the tone of the action, the antiquated science, and the political density of the text, and it all blends together nicely.
But let's face it, what people care about is the action, special effects, and more action--all of which are plentiful in JOHN CARTER. Giant ships that use solar power to soar on sunlight are seen throughout this film, and they are glorious constructions that I want to freeze frame when the DVD comes out just to examine the detail of their design. They are massive battle sequences, fascinating creatures (especially the blind four-armed White Apes that Carter fights in an arena contest), and ancient structures that shift as Carter and his outlaws move through them.
I was especially delighted that Stanton left in the story's bookends, with Carter's nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading his uncle's journal accounts of his time on Mars and how he got there in the first place. There's an actual passion that runs through this film and takes many forms, whether it's the heat between Carter and Dejah, or the emotion that Tars feels for his new friend as well as his people, or the deep guilt and sadness that Carter feels about the terrible thing that happened while he was off fighting in the war. And the emotions that run through JOHN CARTER are strong and give the film a much-needed boost of energy to offset the more talkie parts. And yes, I readily admit, there is a considerable amount of talking in this movie, but I can't remember a time when it truly bothered me or risked putting me to sleep.
Another criticism I have of the film is that it relies a little too much on its jargon. Everything on Mars has a name that is unfamiliar to us, and it takes a long while (assuming you get there at all) to decipher and remember all of the names of people, cultures, creatures, etc. It hurt my brain a little keeping it straight. In the end, John Carter is about introducing humanity and compassion into a civilization that has reduced itself to constant war. In the process, Carter realizes something about his place in the world and the universe, and I'll admit, I was slightly envious of his realizations...and the fact that he gets to spend all that time next to Dejah Thoris. Oh, mama.
You know what? JOHN CARTER is a whole lot of fun at the movies, and an experience that floods the screen with beautiful images and interesting characters. That's why I go to the movies people; the movie doesn't haven't to be perfect, but at the very least, it has to strive for greatness. This one doesn't always hit the mark, but it does a lot of the time. I've called for open-mindedness before, and maybe no more so than saying I think most of you will really like and admire JOHN CARTER.