Review: In defense of “John Carter” – Why this true sci-fi epic is worth seeing and not a big-budget bomb

in Disney, Entertainment, Movies, Reviews

Sitting at the 2011 D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif., I found myself nodding off while attending the huge two-hour Walt Disney Studios presentation. More than an hour in, my attention drifted as I, along with thousands of other Disney fans in the audience, were completely disinterested with the presentation of movie clip after clip, introducing to us in painful detail each of the main characters from Disney’s upcoming film called “John Carter.”

Between this drawn-out introduction and a series of equally uninteresting trailers released by Disney’s marketing team, I initially shrugged off this big-budget live action film as something I’d never be interested in seeing, something that appeared to be akin to “Star Wars” meets “Gladiator” – but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“John Carter” is anything but dull. It’s anything but uninteresting. And it’s definitely not “Star Wars,” “Gladiator,” “Prince of Persia,” or any other similar-in-appearance film that’s been released in the last several decades. Rather, “John Carter” is one of the best true science-fiction films I’ve seen in years. It’s not perfect, but I did walk out of the movie theater thinking, “THAT was what the ‘Star Wars’ prequels should have been.” And there’s a good reason for that.

A love story persists amidst the sci-fi action of "John Carter."

Chronologically, “John Carter,” or rather the book series penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs (of “Tarzan” fame) that the movie is based on, predates essentially every science-fiction, action-adventure, or any other film genre. The original text on which “John Carter” is based is 100 years old. That’s almost as old as cinema itself. And that is the most important concept (and most difficult one) to wrap your head around when seeing the new film. “John Carter” is inherently like so many other films because it is Burroughs’ books that helped to create science-fiction as we know it today. So when seeing “John Carter,” any preconceived notions of what it does or does not compare to or look like need to be wiped clean to enjoy the film for what it is: a solid, sci-fi adventure with likable characters, interesting creatures, and a classic battle between good and evil, with a love story woven in.

Disney has largely been marketing “John Carter” strictly as an action movie, set on a dusty, largely tan planet. When the movie was first billed as “John Carter of Mars,” would-be viewers at least knew the setting of the majority of the film. To fit with the story, it made sense to drop “of Mars” from the title, but that move left those who know little-to-nothing of the history of “John Carter” (which is the vast majority of people, myself included until recently researching) with no frame of reference by which to place what’s being seen. Based solely on the trailers, “John Carter” looks to be “Gladiator” in space. It’s not. And the film even begins in a much more relatable setting: a well-known planet called Earth.

John Carter... of Earth.

John Carter is a Civl War era military captain who finds himself in some trouble, the exact circumstances of which don’t entirely matter to the film’s plot. What matters is that the initial Earth-set scenes allow audiences to relate to the title character before he’s unwittingly transported to Mars, a terrain then unfamiliar to both Carter and the viewing audience. From that moment forward, viewers learn the ins and outs of the new planet at the same time as Carter. It’s an act of discovery that is exciting, unpredictable, and occasionally humorous.

Disney’s “John Carter” trailers have successfully ignored the entire Earth portion of the film so well that they recently released a 10-minute clip from early in the film, offering the world a chance to see that John Carter is more than just a scantily clad warrior:

Video: “John Carter” on Earth

Though the first 30 or so minutes of “John Carter” can get a bit tedious, introducing audiences not only to the film’s main characters (as Disney did at the D23 Expo) but also their entire backstories, it’s necessary to offer a complete understanding that the overall feelings of love, compassion, and dedication drive each lead character through the adventures that follow.

Tars Tarkas meets John Carter on Barsoom.

While trailers may make the movie out to be nothing but boulder-throwing battles against giant white furry space creatures, the heart of the movie lies in the heart of its characters, as they grow to know and care for each other, despite the planet-sized war going on around them and galaxy-sized cultural differences between them. And as the audience gets to know the film’s interplanetary residents, it becomes clear that they all have elements of humanity to them, whether they’re human or otherwise.

But like any good science-fiction movie, “John Carter” does feature plenty of action too, on land and in the air above the planet of Mars – which, by the way, is called Barsoom by those who live there, in case you’ve seen that name and wondered what the heck a “Barsoom” is. (Earth, incidentally, is known as Jasoom.) There are battles involving guns, bright blue lasers, and other projectiles hurled at and from air ships and armies of forces on the ground. And there is a division between the good guys and the bad guys, though it does take a while for audiences to like and trust several of the film’s main characters, as Carter isn’t sure about them either.

Action sequences take place across the land and air.

Visually, the film doesn’t offer traditional sci-fi views of elaborate ships flying through the depths of black space. The majority instead takes place on the desert-looking planet of Mars, offering little variation between locales. It makes it a bit hard to follow exactly where characters are and what what they’re doing there, even to the point where troops are once led to entirely the wrong location on Carter’s orders, perhaps a nod to the fact that it all looks so similar. And don’t bother seeing “John Carter” in 3D. Barsoom doesn’t look any better in the third dimension.

Some of the names and terms offered by the film are a bit hard to accept. The word “Jeddak” is thrown around a lot and I eventually gathered that it’s some sort of respectful way to address others, but that’s not ever made entirely clear. A major setting of the film is a city called Helium, which stands out oddly as the one English word among all the other fictional place names. Other than John Carter and an alien named Tars, I left the movie without remembering a single other character’s name, though I’m sure a second viewing would clear that up. No science-fiction movie would be without bizarre character names.

John Carter is played well by actor Taylor Kitsch, believably thrust from a relatively normal life on Earth (or at least as normal as life could have been during the Civil War) into an entirely abnormal life on Mars, with seemingly superhuman abilities and a keen knack for leadership and battle.

Just why can John Carter leap freely across Barsoom?

The beautiful Lynn Collins is generally one-note throughout the film, though an extremely attractive note at that. She serves her purpose well as a love interest and certainly isn’t just a damsel in distress, but I never completely felt connected with her.

Don't let her looks fool you. She can fend for herself.

Hidden behind computer-generated characters are Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church playing some of the film’s more memorable and important alien roles, and doing a good job at making themselves individually recognizable despite their similar outward appearances.

The Tharks may all look the same but each have their own personalities.

Despite my extraordinarily low expectations going into “John Carter,” I left eager to see the next film – if there is one. There’s a long series of books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs that follows these characters and their stories through many more adventures. Although co-writer/director Andrew Stanton is already reportedly working on a script for the second film in the franchise, it will depend on the box office success (or lack thereof) whether audiences will ever return to Barsoom again on the big screen.

“John Carter” is better than Disney’s marketing would lead you to believe. The trailers, posters, and clips do not do the overall picture any justice. It’s literally impossible for this film to be groundbreaking, since so many memorable films have themselves been inspired by Burroughs’ original text. As such, any faithful reproduction of the book series is sure to look like a ripoff of a more familiar film franchise. As soon as you get past the notion that the content of this film actually predates those productions, it becomes an impressive realization that this enjoyable sci-fi tale is a century old.

The film successfully transported me to another time, place, and even planet, and didn’t let go of my attention until the closing credits. Though the acting can often be somewhat stale and the plot a bit meandering, it’s still an entirely enjoyable film. The world seems ready to dismiss “John Carter” as a failure before even bothering to see it. But I disagree. I encourage all science-fiction fans to check their preconceived notions about what “John Carter” is at the movie theater door and give a fair chance to this big-budget film that’s 100 years in the making.

“John Carter” opens in theaters across the United States today, March 9, 2012 and is rated PG-13.

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