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March 18, 2012

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Movie Review – John Carter (2012)

by NIR SHALEV

John Carter is based on the 100 years old, Edgar Rice Burroughs novel titled A Princess of Mars and it tells the story of an Earthling who inadvertently travels to Mars and must choose sides in a years-long war between two alien races. The story may seem complicated because the source material is a science fictional novel, in which even the name of the planet Mars was changed to Barsoom. But I’ll try my best to not sound confusing.

The story begins on Earth in the mid-1800s. We follow John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War. When evading a Yankee captain (Bryan Cranston) who tries to recruit him onto their side he is accidentally teleported to Mars a/k/a Barsoom. He first notices that the gravitational pull on Barsoom is much lighter than it is on Earth, which affords him the possibilities of covering ridiculous heights and distances with enormous leaps and also tremendous strength. He’s soon after captured by a nine-foot tall, green, four-armed alien race named Thark; their leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) spares his life because of his amazing leaping ability and he’s given over to a female named Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) to be taken care of and “raised”.

The real story begin here: There is another city named Helium, lead by Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), his right hand man Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), and its princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Helium is at war with the city of Zodonga, lead by the tyrannical and bloodthirsty Sab Than (Dominic West); and on Sab Than’s side is a shape-shifting, teleporting demi-god named Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Together they plan to marry Sab Than and Dejah so that their cities would unite and the war would end, but we all know that that’s not going to happen.

John eventually crossed paths with Dejah and she tries to help him to find a way back home, but on their journey she also tries to convince him join her side and help the citizens of Helium win the fight against Zodonga. That’s the second time in John’s life that he is thrust into a situation where he must choose a side and that’s not only the strongest aspect of the film’s story but also the aspect that I liked most. John Carter is heavy on plot and light on action and I find that refreshing.

I wouldn’t call this film an epic because even though it’s heavy on special effects and CGI it leans more towards mediocrity and the compositing (that’s when actors are performing in front of green screens or when CGI creatures occupy other aspects of the screen) was mostly weak. However, the film was almost entirely story and character-driven so whenever an action scene took place, it was over before it had a chance to begin (pardon the expression).

Watching John Carter made me want to start reading the book series because I cared about its characters; mostly Dejah. Hers is the best character in the film because not only is she a beautiful princess, but she’s strong and can fend for herself. There’s a cute running gag where John steps before her in order to fend off incoming enemies and as she’s a superior sword fighter she offers to step before him. Later in the film he insists that she stand before him and protect him even though he’s the unique hero with the astounding leaping ability.

John Carter is just over two hours long but doesn’t feel like it. It’s fun, entertaining, surprisingly fresh, and has a wicked sense of humor. In one scene, John leads the Thark toward an enemy city and they find it deserted because the enemy’s in another city at that moment. Then Tars Tarkas smacks John upside his head. Moments like that litter the film and it’s a blast. My only wish is that the special effects would have been finer because the film’s budget ranges somewhere between $250 and $280 million and I didn’t notice that while watching the film or pondering about it afterwards.

This is a fun film that should be viewed in the theaters and that’s all it is: a fun film. I don’t see Disney trying for a sequel but if one was to exist in the future I would welcome it with open arms.

3 stars

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken
    Mar 18 2012

    Ditto! Like you I hadn’t read the books, but know a lot of guys who have. From what I can tell, the originals have been mined heavily by authors and screenwriters over the years. As a result, some themes and scenes which may come off as being derivative of other movies, might actually be inspired by the original century-old stories.

  2. Miriam
    Mar 18 2012

    I’m glad you liked it too. That cuff upside the head was a moment I particularly enjoyed, so quick I’m sure not everyone noticed it and not at all ‘necessary’ to the story. Many such little moments really build the characters and infuse the movie with a lot of humor and verve.

  3. Doc
    Mar 19 2012

    Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the defining figures in modern popular fiction. He’s best remembered for Tarzan of the Apes, but John Carter has aged better. The conventions of science fantasy are largely the ones ERB created, and it is fun to watch a skilled film maker both honoring and expanding upon them. This film is a must-see.

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