Movie Review: John Carter
Andrew Stanton Does the Grand Daddy of Fantasy Epics Justice
By Tom Houseman
March 12, 2012
You can't half-ass an adaptation of the John Carter of Mars series. It is a sprawling epic on par with Lord of the Rings in terms of scope, if not necessarily literary pedigree. In order to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs' saga to the big screen you have to go all out, and I can think of nobody better to helm John Carter than Andrew Stanton. Stanton's live-action directorial debut brings to life A Princess of Mars, the first novel in the Barsoom series, and in doing so creates one of the most visually stunning films of the last several years. Even more impressively, he does not sacrifice the story that he is trying to tell in doing so.
The advantage of adapting a book, rather than a theme park or an action figure, is that there is already a story and structure in place from which to draw, which means you do not have to lazily make everything up as you go along. The disadvantage, of course, is that books tend to be much more densely plotted than movies, which can make it difficult to keep the story intact while cutting enough of the book to keep the film manageable. I have not read A Princess of Mars so I have no idea whether or not it is particularly difficult to translate its story to the big screen, but I have seen enough Hollywood epics to know that very often the story is either so flimsy it floats away or so bloated that it collapses under its own weight. John Carter, by comparison, has just the right amount of heft to keep moving through its 2+ hours without spinning out of control or stopping to take a nap.
Which is not to say that it is perfectly plotted and paced. Like many origin stories, there is so much that is needed to set up the story that the opening sequences drag and there seems to be a need to wrap everything up so abruptly that the end feels rushed. But in between is a well crafted story that moves efficiently and smartly wastes very little time on exposition. Stanton does not feel the need to hand us all of the information right off the bat, and it is worth being a little bit lost at times for the sake of keeping the film moving efficiently. There are several leaps of logic (including quite a few with actual leaping) that might be distracting if you choose to focus on them, but they are surprisingly easy to ignore if you immerse yourself fully in the story and the world created by the film.
It is wonderful that John Carter does not merely slough through its plot to get to the fights, but when it does get to those action scenes, Stanton's visual mastery shines. There are several enormous battles that rival anything from The Lord of the Rings, often taking place simultaneously on land and in the air. The combination of live-action and CGI is superb and flows so smoothly that it all seems real. Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, the battle sequences are not orgies of loud noises and flashing colors, but have a cohesion and narrative to them that, with the addition of some really outstanding visual effects, makes them mesmerizing.
And the characters? Yes, there are characters, but that's not why anybody is seeing this movie. John Carter and Dejah Thoris (the eponymous princess of the novel) are made for each other in that they share the same dominant character trait, feistiness. Also there are lots of aliens, including the human-resembling and the grasshopper-on-steroids-resembling, and a few of them even have personalities, but even the ones who are purely evil serve their purpose satisfactorily. This is Taylor Kitsch's first starring role in a movie and he shows that he has range beyond playing the brooding Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights. Starring in a blockbuster can be tricky business, as Jake Gyllenhaal's abysmal performance in The Prince of Persia can attest to. Kitsch has charm and charisma to spare, never overplays the dramatic moments and, most impressively, has wonderful chemistry with love interest Lynn Collins.
Of course, John Carter is going to be a very different experience to different viewers depending on their familiarity with Burroughs' work. Fanboys enter the theater with an amount of knowledge and a set of expectations that someone who has not read A Princess of Mars does not. I will leave it to the fanboys to determine whether or not Stanton has flayed their childhood, but anyone able to judge the film on its own terms will find a compelling story that is entertainingly told. John Carter is able to take itself seriously (no small feat with aliens that look like that) while adding shades of humor, a fine line that Stanton walks well. And the film is so visually inspiring that you just might drool a little watching it. This is not a great film, not a classic by any of the stretch of the imagination, but for some summer entertainment in March you can't do better.