Release Date: March 9, 2012
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs (story A Princess of Mars)
Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and Willem Dafoe
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Disney seem very unsure of how to sell John Carter.
They’ve clearly spent a lot of money on a massive marketing campaign, but the campaign itself has done little more than make people aware that the film is called John Carter and that it stars a scantily-clad Taylor Kitsch fighting strange creatures in a desert.
You’d never know that the story takes place on Mars or that the giant green four-armed creatures – the Tharks – that are barely shown in the spots actually factor prominently into the story. (I remember the very first trailer I ever saw, which used Peter Gabriel’s cover of “My Body is a Cage” quite effectively, only used a voiceover from Willem Dafoe, not even making it clear that Dafoe was one of the Tharks.) The fact that the film is based on a hundred-year-old story by Edgar Rice Burroughs is downplayed as well. As is the fact that the story takes place post-Civil War and that Carter was an accomplished Confederate soldier.
Even the Disney name itself is downplayed, presumably to keep people from thinking this is a kid’s movie. Instead, the latest round of trailers informs the viewer that this is a film from the studio that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean and Alice in Wonderland.
All of this is presumably to keep from alienating people who might be scared away by knowing it’s essentially a period piece about a Confederate soldier who somehow winds up on Mars in the middle of a Civil War on that planet taking place between three different factions – two who look human and the third the aforementioned four-armed green people.
While I can somewhat understand Disney’s apprehension, I don’t really think they have anything to worry about. While the film is definitely sci-fi, it’s incredibly accessible to the average viewer and provides the audience with a beautifully-shot and rather fun adventure/love story.
Even if you can’t keep track of all of the strange names – like Barsoom, which is what the natives call Mars – you can still follow the plot quite easily. You may not be able to remember that the good human-like clan live in Hellium and the evil human-like clan live in Zodanga, but you don’t need to because the good guys wear blue sashes and the bad guys wear red ones.
It helps to that we are following John Carter in his journey since he is also an outsider who is unfamiliar with the inhabitants and history of Mars (or Barsoom). Carter finds an amulet in a cave, which transports him to Mars, causing him to wake up in the middle of the desert. He discovers that he can leap tall buildings in a single bound and has enhanced strength thanks to the different gravitational pull on the red planet.
His newfound superpowers make him appealing to the Tharks – the four-armed green guys – who enslave him and hope to use him as their ace in the hole against the other human-like creatures on Barsoom, who have superior weapons and technology to the Tharks.
Meanwhile, the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), is being pressured by her father to marry the brutish Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga (Dominic West), in order to put an end to the war between the two cities. Dejah crosses paths with John Carter and decides she’d rather take her chances with the handsome superman and his band of green aliens than stick around and marry Sab Than.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean, the film has a good balance of action, comedy and romance. The plot moves along fairly quickly and there’s always enough big action sequences and silly jokes to keep you from getting bored. There is even a super-fast, adorable puppy-like creature that follows Carter around the planet.
The film itself looks quite beautiful. You can tell a lot of money was put into the CGI effects, making the battle sequences all seem grand and epic. The Tharks and all of the other creatures on Mars are well-rendered. I was especially impressed by the eyes – which have often seemed like an Achilles heel for computer animators, but in this film seem quite lifelike.
Also, while I am by no means a fan of the 3D craze in films, I will say that John Carter had some of the best 3D effects that I’ve seen. You can tell that this wasn’t one of those rushed postproduction 3D conversions, which often leave the film looking too dark and give underwhelming effects. Thought and effort was put into the 3D and if that technology is your cup of tea, then you’ll enjoy the effects in this movie.
The acting is quite good as well. Taylor Kitsch, known previously for his work on Friday Night Lights, shows he has the chops to be an effective action star. Lynn Collins gives a captivating performance as the love interest and instead of simply being a damsel in distress, she gets to be an accomplished warrior as well. Willem Dafoe, who can at times seem overly-cartoony in a film like this, is quite enjoyable as well. So is Dominic West, who manages to make you instantly dislike his character the moment you see him.
So while Disney seems a bit apprehensive about this film, they really have nothing to fear. Sure, it’s a sci-fi period piece, but it’s an incredibly entertaining one. Fans of Burroughs’ books may not love all of the changes that have been made to the story, but I think the average audience member will find something enjoyable in this one.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.