John Carter is far from the disaster it’s been made out to be in some circles…nor is it an unqualified success. It has enough visual effects and production values for three movies, and almost as much story material, which is one of its problems. But it does provide vigorous, eye-filling entertainment, and paves the way for Taylor Kitsch (best known so far from his work on the TV series Friday Night Lights) to become a major movie star.
I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels about Carter and the planet Mars (known to the locals as Barsoom), but a friend who is a lifelong devotee was quite pleased with this adaptation, by director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, declaring it true to the spirit of the books even though it adds many ideas of its own. As one of Pixar’s star players, Stanton is an experienced cinematic storyteller, which is why it’s disappointing that his first live-action project is so unwieldy at times. My challenge was keeping track of the many curious and unusual-looking characters that populate the picture. (All I can say with certainty is that Tharks don’t fly.)
John Carter (a virile, and likable, Kitsch) is a Confederate soldier who, in the wake of a family tragedy, has become uncontrollable, a wild animal who is ready to lash out at anyone and everyone. Fate and circumstance transport him to the planet Mars, where the lighter gravity gives him the ability to jump and soar about. This impresses even the fiercest warriors he meets, including a feisty princess (Lynn Collins) whose father is urging her to marry one of their enemies in order to create a peaceful alliance. The question is whether or not Carter is willing to take sides in a battle that is not his own.
This epic-scale production is the latest to offer a visual-effects landscape so palpably real that it’s impossible to tell where actors and sets leave off and movie magic takes over. At one time this achievement alone would have made John Carter a major event; today, it is just the latest in a string of films to show off such technical wizardry. While we can still marvel at the amazing sights laid out before us—like an apparent monster who turns out to be an overgrown puppy-dog-like pet—it is imperative that we never lose sight of who’s who, and what’s at stake. That turns out to be a tall order.
I can only call the finished film a mixed bag, with exciting scenes followed by dull stretches. But no movie so rich in imagination and so skillfully staged could or should be dismissed out of hand. If you have even the slightest curiosity about John Carter, I’d encourage you to see it.
As to why the folks at Disney decided to leave “…of Mars” off the title, I have no idea what they hoped to accomplish. Readers have devoured Burroughs’ novels under that name for decades; turning it into a generic name seems downright silly.