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John Carter is Pulpy Sci-Fi That Really Works

Disney’s John Carter is an exciting adaptation of the classic pulp fiction series that does justice to the Mars novels as well as big-budget sci-fi epics. With a cast of wonderfully realized characters, a great sense of visual style all its own, and some fantastic effects, it’s taken a hundred years to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation to the big screen, and this movie makes it worth the wait.

Edgar Rice Burroughs may be best known for his later creation Tarzan, but for my money his coolest contribution to the sci-fi fantasy genre was John Carter, the pulp fiction hero who first appeared in A Princess of Mars. Published a century ago this year, Princess of Mars sparked not only an eleven-book John Carter series, but inspired countless science fiction-minded artists, writers and filmmakers since its first publication. John Carter’s story has also been attempted on the big screen many times, but after too many lost right, technological restraints and false starts to remember, Disney and Pixar director Andrew Stanton have finally brought the epic to the big screen. And I’m not exaggerating when I say epic– John Carter is a big and ambitious movie, loaded with great production value and a robust adaptation of the world of Barsoom that reaches high and mostly succeeds.

Based mostly on the first novel of the series, John Carter is an origin story, as we are introduced to the former Confederate soldier (played by Taylor Kitsch) as he travels the Western plains searching for gold, only to find himself transported to Mars and caught up in the affairs of both the barbaric green-skinned Tharks and also the warring nations of Helium and Zodanga, homes of the red people of Mars. Carter befriends the chief (of Jeddak) of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (voiced perfectly by Willem Dafoe), and encounters Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the Princess of Helium trying to escape her planned marriage to the brutish prince of Zodanga, Sab Than. The Earth man becomes a person of interest to virtually everyone, due to the incredible superpowers bestowed on him thanks to the different gravity on Barsoom– Carter’s Earth-bound bone density grants him incredible agility and the ability jump immense distances on the new planet. Carter becomes embroiled in the ongoing war between Helium and Zodanga, being moved along by the Machiavellian Thane Matai Shang (Mark Strong), and the “born fighter” eventually transforms into a true warrior.

John Carter serves as a very solid adaptation of Burroughs’ original story. The script, by Stanton and author Michael Chabon, does a good job of weaving together the serialized chapters of the book into one continuing narrative, tossing in a few plotlines and story elements not seen in the source material until the second and third books. While the story’s throughline does get a bit embroiled in all-too familiar sci-fi territory (the politics of the two warring nations, Carter as the reluctant hero for the first half of the film), the fantastic job Stanton and his crew perform on bringing the completely alien Barsoom to life make up for any plot shortcomings. The on-screen red planet is very immersive, and Stanton’s Pixar roots are clearly showing as every character, set piece, creature and costume is fully realized and full of wonderful nuances and details that make it a logical part of this other world. The Tharks are particularly fantastic, nine feet tall with four arms, green skin and tusks just like the novels. We get a good look at their nomadic, barbaric existence as Carter becomes their prisoner then ally, and the movie thankfully avoids depicting the aliens in any kind of PC “noble savage” light (a condescending tone that ruined the Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar)– their whole existence is based on being strong, and as we see not even their newborns are immune to these standards of strength. The camaraderie between Carter and Tarkas is perfect, as we see Tarkas develop over the course of the movie from finding Carter an amusing oddity, to a threat and ultimately to an ally worthy of respect. Even cooler than the Tharks, though, is Woola, the weird, dog-like Calot that becomes John’s pet/ sidekick. Woola should be an eye-rolling addition here, as the kid-friendly silly sidekick creature, but while he’s certainly cute and entertaining, Woola always remains capable and pretty badass in his own right– the super-speedy creature is fiercely loyal to his master, more than capable on handling himself in a fight, and even at his silliest never stoops to the level of fart humor or other nonsense.

My favorite character by far is our Princess, Dejah Thoris. Lynn Collins really nails it here, playing Dejah with a fun, theatrical flair while conveying an incredible amount of strength and grace. All too often the warrior woman in sci-fi loses her femininity in the process, but Dejah, a scientist and a warrior, is able to kick some serious ass while remaining completely womanly. She’s also incredibly sexy– something we haven’t seen a lot of in sci-fi since staples like Star Wars (and even later Star Trek) effectively neutered the genre from its sexier side. Dejah really is the complete package, and watching the movie, it’s no wonder that Carter would give up his quest home to save the beautiful heroine. The rest of the cast is also pretty stellar, all playing just the right level of broad for an epic fantasy story like this. Strong’s Matai Shang is suitably sinister as the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of this ongoing civil war, while James Purefoy’s Kantos Kan, Thomas Haden Church’s evil Thark Tal Hajus and Bryan Cranston’s Lt. Powell (back on Earth) all get some great scenes despite limited screen time.

Theer’s been some reviews downplaying the performance of Kitsch as John Carter himself, but I really don’t agree. Yes, there’s just a touch too much Christian Bale Batman gravel in Kitsch’s delivery, but his more practical, less showy line delivery accentuates his differences from the residents of Barsoom, and highlights the fact that he is an outsider. While the reluctant hero bit has been done to death, that’s more a fault of the script than Kitsch– while it wasn’t necessary to turn Carter into another brooding hero, if that’s the movie’s worst offense I’ll happily live with it. More to point, this tacked-on pathos leads to one of my absolute favorite scenes of the film, as Carter flashes back to the death of his wife on Earth, while standing alone against a vicious army of warriors. It’s one of several scenes in the movie that have that utterly iconic “cool” that’s almost impossible to describe and even harder to catch on film… but the image of Carter, bathed in blue Martian blood standing atop a pile of dead barbarian aliens is burned in my brain and I’m pretty okay with that. While the movie didn’t go for a direct Frank Frazetta vibe, there’s lots of great tributes to his sword-and-sorcery take on John Carter, including the violence the legendary painter often depicted. It’s still pretty mind-blowing that a Disney movie can get away with as much as we see here– there’s more than one situation in which Carter is dripping head-to-toe in blood, once after slashing his way out of a slain beast’s carcass (!), and even a beheading.

It’s clear that Stanton really gets what this story is about, and I was very happy to see him not hold any punches when it comes to either gore or storytelling. Much like fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird’s work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Stanton avoids lots of modern filmmaking cliche’s like shaky cams and tight shots– instead he takes a more classic approach with plenty of wide shots that really immerse you in this other world, and well-crafted visually-pleasing action sequences. It’s refreshing to watch a major movie loaded with set pieces, and be able to understand what is happening (and who is doing what to who) the entire time. The only compromise the director makes is with the title– Disney wanted to avoid the word “Mars” due to recent box office disasters’ use of the red planet, and Stanton did oblige– in some ways, it really does make sense for the origin story… Carter doesn’t become “Of Mars” until the final moments of the film, and we do get the movie’s full title before the credits roll.

The lousy marketing for this movie makes it seem like a Star Wars prequel knockoff, but don’t let these mis-managed ads fool you– John Carter is much more the cinematic soulmate of A New Hope, Schwartzennegger’s Conan movies, and even the classic Pixar films than it is Lucas’ forgettable cash-grabs. There’s a lot to love in John Carter, and it really did feel refreshing to see a big-budget sci-fi epic play out with this level of skill, crafting and confidence. I would be thrilled to see Stanton’s vision come true and this series continue for the trilogy he proposed, but even on its own John Carter is a thrilling and very fun ride. As soon as I left the theater, much like John carter himself, I absolutely could not wait for my chance to return to Barsoom.

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