One of the year’s more pleasant surprises to date is Andrew Stanton’s John Carter—a nicely cast, superbly mounted sci-fi action film that manages to overcome an inflated running time and occasional bouts of cuteness by remembering and embracimg its pulp fiction roots as an “interplanetary romance.” (No, the use of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in the trailer does not extend to the film, which is almost a shame.) It’s an adaption of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 serialized novel A Princess of Mars—one might more readily call the film an elaboration, but not one that could be said to betray the source. If anything, it’s just possible that it improves on the book, which tends to jump into the story a little hastily—sometimes incomprehensibly. (The Burroughs contingent—they do exist — will possibly take issue with that.)
The film is reasonably Burroughsian, if not a to-the-letter version of the book at hand, although it gives the story a more complex background than the one found in the book. The film doesn’t have John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) realize immediately (and ridiculously) he’s been transported to Mars, and it brings in characters and events from later books. Even the presence of a young Burroughs (Darryl Sabara), though expanded from the character in the book, is in keeping with the source. But what matters, of course, is how well John Carter works on its own merits as a movie. Apart from the dubious notion of leaving the word “Mars” out of the title (it is the title that appears at the end of the film), I think it works pretty darn well.
The expanded opening sequences that establish the title character are quite good. In fact, they’re some of the cleverest, most accomplished filmmaking in the entire movie. If they somewhat recall last year’s Cowboys & Aliens, they do so to the earlier movie’s detriment. This is much nearer the mark of a credible Western atmosphere (so, for that matter, are many of the scenes on Mars), and is probably closer to what Cowboys & Aliens had hoped to be. It also serves to better explain — well, sort of — just how John Carter gets transported to Mars—or Barsoom as the natives call it.
Of coure, what really counts in a movie of this type is how the sequences on Mars fare. And by and large, the film manages to be both fantastic and credible enough. The green Martians (the ones with two sets of arms) look surprisingly real and solid. The story is agreeably complex, with its range of characters, societies and various mythologies nicely worked out without being overly explained. Most of the villains aren’t all that much to get excited about, although Mark Strong as the enigmatic, duplicitous Matai Shang, more than makes up for that. In fact, he often takes the film away from the somewhat colorless leads. (That’s always a peril of good villainy.)
The biggest drawback to John Carter is the most common one to films of this nature—the battle scenes. I won’t say that the battles depicted in the movie are in any way lacking in size, scope or believability, but I will say that they all overstay their welcome to that dangerous point where your mind is apt to start wandering. This is especially notable with the big final battle, not in the least because it’s too close to the better done and more interesting wedding-procession scene—where the constantly shape-shifting Matai Shang leads Carter through the crowds . All the same, as big-budget sci-fi action is concerned, the film is a good time—and considerably more thoughtful than most movies of this type. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.