JOHN CARTER (OF MARS)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Domenic West, Thomas Haden Church
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Running time: 132 Mins
Release Date: March 9, 2012
John Carter is a big, exciting, well-crafted behemoth of summer blockbuster movie-making. Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E (two of the best, and most heartfelt, animated films ever made), brings Edgar Rice Burroughs prototypical Space Adventurer to life as a steely-eyed, no-nonsense Civil War vet turned reluctant saviour.
The script, written by Stanton, Pixar scribe Mark Andrews and Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon, deviates a great deal from the books (this is kind of a mash-up of the first and third books), both in set-up and in details, but the overall theme remains the same. John Carter, Civil War vet and prospector, flees a rampaging band of Apache and finds himself in a strange cave which transports him to Mars. Upon arriving on the Red Planet, Carter finds he can leap like Superman and throw punches like Mike Tyson on Red Bull. He's caught by the Martian equivalent of Apache, a tribe of Tharks - green four-armed giants with a taste for violence and a communal nomad society that is both primal and advanced. Meanwhile, Deja Thoris, princess of the city of Helium, is being forced to marry a bloodthirsty warlord to save her people. She, of course, escapes with the help of our shirtless hero and they traverse Barsoom (the proper Martian name for the planet) in hopes of saving Helium and returning Carter to Earth. Along the way we meet Thark cheiftan Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, commanding as always), the unfortunate Sola (Samantha Morton), and Carter's new bodyguard, a slug-dog creature (remiscent of Falkor from The Never-Ending Story) called Woola that scurries along at light-speed. As always happens in these stories, the odds are stacked in the bad guys favour, in this case, Sab Than (the ever-charming and always devilish Domenic West) prince of Zodanga, who is annihilating everyone he sees with the help of the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong in full-on evil baldie mode). I'll spare the spoilery details beyond that.
Suffice it to say, this is the best Sci-Fi Fantasy flick in recent memory. The effects are magnificent, specifically the animation of the Tharks, White Apes and Woola. The action is plentiful and thrilling. Despite my trepidation going in, Taylor Kitsch grows on you and acquits himself well by the end of the film. Dafoe, Morton, and the rest of the supporting cast are in their usual top-form. Lynn Collins, who plays Deja Thoris, is mesmerizing on screen. Hopefully this will be the project that takes her to the next level, after coming so close so many times. She imbues Deja Thoris with the perfect combination of self-assuredness, intelligence, strength and femininity that the character has long stood as a prime example of. Little girls could do a lot worse than an ass-kicking scientist warrior princess for a role model these days. Little dudes too. We all need a few more strong women who stand up to tyranny and a few less Snookies and Mileys in the world right now, don'tcha think?
Having said all of that, something still fell a little flat with John Carter. It's a forgone conclusion that most people have not read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books. The first book, A Princess of Mars, was written a hundred years ago and inspired just about every science fiction saga from Star Wars to Battlestar Gallactica. The unfortunate side-effect of that is going to be a distracted sense of "been there, done that". This is technically brilliant, sure-handed filmmaking with a great cast, a good script and a bigger budget than the GNP of most countries. Still, I fear that most viewers will feel like it's all old hat, after having seen so many bits and pieces used in everything from Superman and Flash Gordon to Star Trek, each and every Star Wars film, and even last summers lacklustre Cowboys and Aliens. My advice? Go see John Carter, enjoy it for what it is, and hope like hell that Stanton gets to make a few more that will inevitably blow our minds. Besides, when's the last time you got to see decapitation, Bryan Cranston or tattooed chicks in a Disney flick? And after you see it, go get the book.