It’s been a full century since Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced readers to John Carter, a Civil War soldier who became the warlord hero of Mars. This week, Walt Disney Pictures shines a spotlight on the iconic character once again with John Carter, a big-screen (and big-budget) adventure starring Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and directed by Andrew Stanton.
Given the title character’s relatively low profile in the 70 years that have passed since the publication of Burroughs’ final volume of stories set on Mars, John Carter faces a number of questions when it arrives in theaters – not the least of which is whether modern audiences will warm to the hero’s adventures on the red planet. On top of that, the film also serves as the live-action debut for Stanton, who previously directed the celebrated Pixar animated films Finding Nemo and WALL-E.
So, how does John Carter answer the questions surrounding it?
Well, it starts by giving audiences a fun, fast-paced adventure with a lot of heart.
Co-written by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars, the first book of Burroughs’ “Barsoom Series” (named after the Martians’ word for their planet). The film chronicles the adventures of a former Confederate soldier who is transported to Mars via a mysterious energy wave that leaves his physical body back on Earth and reconstitutes his conscience in a new, identical body on Mars. Granted powerful abilities due to the planet’s gravity and atmosphere, Carter soon finds himself caught up in yet another civil war – this time, between the various races of Mars and the internal factions battling for control of the planet’s resources.
One of the first things that stands out about John Carter is the impressive scope of the world conceived by Burroughs and brought to the screen by Stanton. There’s a very real sense of wonder throughout the film that’s hard to dismiss, and it keeps you eager to see what unique set pieces lie beyond the next mountain or around the corner. It’s the sort of vision that anyone who creates a fantastic world on paper hopes for when the project is adapted, and in many ways, John Carter is a great example of what can happen when two prolific imaginations are brought together.
That’s not to say that all the visual elements accomplish what they set out to do, though. Much like some of the other recent movies that were converted to 3-D after filming, the extra dimension adds very little to the final product. In fact, during a battle between Martian airships that occurs early in the film, the 3-D actually ends up being a bit distracting during some of the more effects-heavy sequences.
It should probably come as no surprise that Stanton has a great grasp on how to breathe life into animated characters, but knowing how often filmmakers get this part of movies wrong makes it that much nicer to see how well the Green Martians and other races generated through digital effects come to life on the screen. Throughout the film, Kitsch’s interactions with the computer-generated portion of the cast hit that sweet spot between making the alien characters look real, and having everyone around them act like they’re real.
Stanton and his writing partners deserve credit for injecting Burroughs’ original tale with just enough modern sensibility to preserve the necessary suspension of disbelief for a film like John Carter. This is no small feat, when you consider how much the general public knows about Mars today as compared to what was known back in 1912, when A Princess of Mars was first published.
While the script diverges from A Princess of Mars at several points, the general theme remains. The writing team for John Carter has clearly done their homework, as they manage to seed the first film with a few minor – and one or two major – plot points intended to pay off in future films, and do a great job of balancing the need for a standalone film with the tease of a much larger world.
In bringing John Carter to life, Kitsch does a good job of capturing the character’s Southern-bred sense of honor that was so important to Burroughs’ vision for the hero, while also handling the action scenes and early stranger-in-a-strange-land scenarios that are so important to the tone of the story. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ten Year), who plays the Red Martian princess Dejah Thoris, does a fine job of giving John Carter a love interest who’s more than just eye candy.
Mark Strong is similarly passable as Matai Shang, one of the Therns – a shape-shifting, humanoid race attempting to put Mars under its control. Given how memorable his villains were in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, his role in John Carter feels a little watered-down, but that probably has less to do with the actor and more to do with the character.
If there’s one element of John Carter that’s truly deserving of criticism, though, it’s the overall length of the film.
Clocking in at over two hours, John Carter feels like the saga-beginning story that it is, but could easily stand to lose 10-20 minutes off its running time. At times, the narrative seems a little loose, with a few scenes clearly included for the sole purpose of hitting each of the audience demographics Disney wants to attract with the film. Trimming those scenes could have gone a long way toward wrapping up the film in a more manageable 110-120 minutes.
Yet, even with all of the positives John Carter has going for it, it remains to be seen whether it will find enough of an audience to make this standalone film the first chapter in a franchise. Given the spectre of Disney’s plans for the property and the studio’s very public desire to make this the first of many John Carter movies, it’s easy to overlook how enjoyable the film is on its own and how impressive of a directorial debut it is for Andrew Stanton. At a time when Hollywood seems content to churn out a steady stream of retreads or sequels and rarely takes the time to build a strong foundation for its franchises, John Carter is a breath of fresh air that’s worth the price of admission.
Sure, it has its flaws, but the good far outweighs the bad with John Carter, and leaves you hoping for a return to Barsoom in the future.