JOHN CARTER (PG-13) Months before the release of the science-fiction fantasy epic John Carter (AKA John Carter of Mars), word leaked to Hollywood trade publications and movie-geek websites that director Andrew Stanton’s (WALL-E) first live-action movie was terrible. Industry journalists and many critics subsequently pounced, ignoring the only thing that matters (artistic merit) and instead shaping the negative press by focusing on its mammoth budget, Disney’s mangled marketing and that the movie just didn’t look like anything special considering how influential the Edgar Rice Burroughs source novels have been on the Star Wars franchise, Cameron’s Avatar and others. Although the books have never been considered proper science fiction (technological plausibility is not their strength), Burroughs’ sense of robust 19th-century adventure has kept them popular, regardless of trends, and Hollywood filmmakers have long wanted to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book, to the screen. Was it worth the wait?
There’s nothing fresh about John Carter‘s plot, but it’s nevertheless a cracking good yarn: American John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Confederate soldier and now a floundering gold miner, is inexplicably zapped to Mars, known as Barsoom to its inhabitants, and finds himself in the middle of another civil war, this time between the evil usurper Sab Than (Dominic West) and his kingdom, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her kingdom and the mighty warriors the Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).
Don’t believe the negative hype: John Carter is a beautifully crafted pulp adventure, exquisitely designed, filled with creatures galore and exuding genuine warmth and a romantic spirit that is rare for a blockbuster like this. Stanton and his co-screenwriters, Mark Andrews and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, manage to find a remarkable tonal balance throughout the outlandish events. It’s earnest without being stupid, serious without being ponderous, and funny without being distractingly tongue-in-cheek. The unfortunately named Kitsch is dull, but he makes for an otherwise solidly uncynical hero, and Collins gives real dramatic weight to her character, who does not serve the story as yet another helpless maiden. If it takes a throwback like this to be progressive, so be it.
In an era of idiotic spectacle like the Transformers series and the endless unimaginative glut of superhero dross, it’s refreshing and a bit shocking to see a big-budget fantasy resort to old-fashioned classic storytelling and heart to entertain. John Carter is a square. But it’s a lovable one.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.