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John Carter 3D (2012)

March 9, 2012


written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon

produced by: Jim Morris, Colin Wilson & Lindsey Collins

directed by: Andrew Stanton

rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action

runtime: 132 min.

U.S. release date: March 9, 2012

My earliest memory of  John Carter was back in the late 70s, seeing the Marvel Comics series on the spinner rack of my local 7-11. Adapted by Marv Wolfman with bold art by Gil Kane, it came across like an outer space Conan the Barbarian. Although my young brain couldn’t fully register it as I casually flipped through the comic, it seemed to exude a certain retro-cool that would become emblazoned into my collection of random geek images. Little did I know that the Edgar Rice Burroughs creation, which is now a century old, highly-influenced the movies that captured my imagination at the time, like “Superman” and “Star Wars”. But I never imagined that a swashbuckling space fantasy could be as fully-realized as “John Carter”, Disney’s attempt at building a bold and enormous blockbuster franchise adventure. It’s amazing that a century old story can be so invigorating, sweeping an audience into a movie that is overflowing with pure escapism.

“John Carter” wastes no time, kicking off by dropping us into a heated Civil War on the planet Barsoom, the planet we know as Mars. Elaborate gliding solar planes fly above a vast barren landscape, engaging in an impassioned battle. These are the Zodongans and the Heliumites, two clashing humanoid species indigenous to the planet.  Led by Sab Than (Dominic West) and aided with powerful weaponry from the mysterious Tharn race, the aggressive Zodongans pursue the sophisticated yet overpowered Heliumites. What we’re given here is a spectacular taste of what’s to come, and then we immediately travel to post-Civil War America.

It’s there we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a haunted former Confederate Captain from Virginia, who now spends his days prospecting gold in the caves of Arizona. He also evades the tenacious Col. Powell (Bryan Cranston) who wishes to recruit Carter into battle against the Apaches. Fleeing both parties by escaping into a cave with a secret chamber that suddenly transports Carter to Barsoom. He finds the change in gravity grants him superhuman strength and the ability to effortlessly leap to enormous heights and distances. Carter soon encounters a race of towering green-skinned, four-armed creatures called Tharks, specifically their curious leader, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) who is amazed at what the earthing can do on his world. Without much say in the matter, the Tharks take Carter in, assimilating him to this strange environment, with some befriending him, like the helpful Sola (Samantha Morton), while others, like Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church), see him as a threat.



Determined to find the device he believes will send him back to Earth, Carter soon finds himself embroiled in the Civil War that continues. Instinctively, he meets Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins), the smart and resourceful princess of Helium, when he rescues her as she fights the Zodongans.  Although Carter realizes the beautiful heroine can fend for herself, he is compelled to help her get out of the marriage to Sab Than that her father (Ciarán Hinds) arranged, as part of a truce between the two waring nations. He urgency increases when he discovers that mentalist Tardos Mors (Mark Strong – yes, him again…deal with it, he’s great) a deceptive Tharn, has been the manipulator of both the war and the pending nuptials, for the sake of his own dubious reasons.

Using his experiences and know-how from back home,  Carter sets out to not only aid Dejah, as the two fall in love, but also her people from being overrun. Along the way, he must recruit the usually uninvolved Tharks, survive a meet-and-greet with two giant white apes, and overcome his own reluctance. In doing so, John Carter becomes immersed in an amazing world and in doing so, finds himself able to call it home.

It’s a huge gamble for Disney to go forth and adapt Burroughs’ Barsoom books, but boy does it pay off. The majority of moviegoers have been scratching their heads, wondering why what looks like Episode 1.5 of the Star Wars prequels (based on marketing-challenged trailers and TV spots) is called “John Carter”. Admittedly, I was hesitant with what I saw too. While I wanted the live-action debut of writer/director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”) to be a success, I wasn’t particularly whelmed with what I saw. Something rare happened though – instead of all the best scenes being crammed into the trailer (like we usually get) – Stanton’s ambitious feature squashes and surpasses any doubts or suspicions. It’s clear he’s a fan first, as he embraces the pulpy science fantasy of the source material, while combining succinct storytelling with fantastic special effects technology. Even his use of 3D is gimmick-free, using it as a tool to sell the third rock from the sun as a inhabitable world, instead of throwing objects at our 3D glasses.

Stanton now joins fellow Oscar-winning director and Pixar pal, Brad Bird (who recently helmed “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, the best of that series), as one who has successfully transitioned into non-animated work. Of course, Stanton’s animation background has served him well, as “John Carter” requires it’s own specific animation as well. Stanton surrounds himself with an incredible team of visual artists and production designers, in order to bring “A Princess of Mars”, the first of the books (which premiered back in 1912) to the big-screen. Just as Burroughs’ work impacted so many mediums of fantasy, Stanton clearly has his share of genre influences. Sci-fi and western classics like the original “The Planet of the Apes” and “The Outlaw Josey Whales” come to mind, adding tonal elements of those movies that may seem familiar. In fact, the whole movie may feel familiar to some, but keep in mind what came first.



The CGI characters on Barsoom are award-worthy creations. They obviously have to be convincingly sold by the actors who play them – which they are – but we must also believe they visually exist. The movements of the Thark race feel real and even in the way they emphasize with either two or four arms is a deliberate character move that contributes to the creatures believability. It’s a fine combination of allowing actors to embody characters created by imagination and digital talent.

The best thing about casting Kitsch as the Carter, is that he’s not an actor who is globally recognizable, yet he’s not an unknown. Compare it to another fantasy film like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” where audiences are seeing: Jake Gyllenhaal with muscles – having Kitsch portray a role that (let’s face it) is mainly known by sci-fi geeks, is easier to accept. The “Friday Night Lights” star isn’t the most compelling actor, but that’s not what the character requires. His performance is an amalgam of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo with a dash of The Man with No Name, and yet the playfulness and physicality he brings is all his own. What Kitsch does best is fully give himself over to the role, allowing himself to disappear which sends the viewer’s focus in the right direction.

Kitsch reunites with his “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” costar, Lynne Collins, who may be playing the best Disney princess yet. Dejah Thoras is just as able-bodied and courageous as Carter and knows what to do with a sharp sword. It’s also nice to give the character a scientific mind to go with her scarlet tattooed, navel-bearing body. Like Kitsch, Collins also throws herself into the role and is enjoyable to follow, especially when she shows Dejah’s vulnerable side which sharpens her steely resolve. Is she anymore compelling than Kitsch? Hold on, let’s be real here – this isn’t an actor’s movie. Yes, it needs the right actors, which it has, but we should be investing in the characters of “John Carter” just as much as the actors are, rather than looking for any kind of Oscar moments.

Composer Michael Giacchino provides an infectious score that is just as integral as any other artist contributing to the film. Using rousing themes with, at times, a mysterious ethereal chorus, Giacchino adds yet another stellar soundtrack to his career. One particularly moving battle sequence that Giacchino elevates reminded me of the emotional opening of J.J. Abram’s “Star Trek”, where we get important character details about Carter simply through sound and visuals.





If the movie has any flaws, it can be found in its effort to cram too much information once we get to Barsoom, but at no point did trying to figure out who’s who or what a ninth ray is take me out of the film. Stanton, Mark Andrews (director of the upcoming Pixar film “Brave”), and Michael Chabon (“Wonder Boys”) balance the retro, serialized tone well in their screenplay, with a needed PG-13 heft. A nice touch is bringing in the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by former Spy Kid, Daryl Sabara) from the books, as Carter’s nephew and biographer. It’s a cool inclusion that bookends a palpable emotional touch to the movie, further investing the audience.

This is the movie that “Cowboys and Aliens” could’ve been and the movie that “Green Lantern” tried to be. Those movies can learn quite a bit from “John Carter”, primarily how important it is to stay true to the source material. Sure, some tweaks and deviations may be necessary or logical, but if the material is worthy of adapting – then do it justice and do it with exuberant passion, just like Stanton is doing here.

Watching the movie, I felt like a kid again – seeing the kind of movies that sparked my curiosity and imagination so many years ago. I’ll bet that’s what Stanton’s goal was. The result: it’s the first movie this year that I wanted to immediately see again (in IMAX for sure) and that’s always a welcome feeling. “John Carter” may not be a movie for everyone, but here’s the thing – it certainly can be.




RATING: ****



8 Comments leave one →
  1. Windi permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:56 pm

    well, this is certainly good news, because Calvin REALLY wants to see this movie, and I was prepared to endure the movie for his sake.(which is what I did going to Star Wars Episode I with a friend of mine’s daughter–I really did not enjoy that movie at all ) I was going in with low expectations, but I think I am going to actually look forward to going to it now!

    I don’t mind a little camp and a little cheese, if done correctly. But there is a fine line for sure, and based on the previews, I wasn’t prepared to enjoy the movie very much at all.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      March 9, 2012 2:14 pm

      Well, that’s where Disney’s marketing team has totally dropped the ball.

  2. francesca permalink
    March 12, 2012 11:54 am

    Your enthusiasm is viral; I’ll see it!


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