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John Carter (2012)

Life on Mars?

An enduring favorite of fantasy and science fiction fans--my mind goes to a sentimental vision of children curled up in their beds with their trusty flashlights, desperate to read just one more chapter before closing their eyes, their rooms wallpapered with star-ships and superheroes and glowing stars--Edgar Rice Burroughs' heroic John Carter at last leaps to the big screen. It has been noted by many with amusement and fascination the strange dynamic this film faces: it comes long after the release of many films inspired, perhaps even copied from Burroughs' source pulp texts, from the Star Wars trilogies to Avatar. Many have tried in the past to bring John Carter to the silver screen, but were unable to see it through for any number of reasons. This film is also released under a cloud: it cost Disney hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Mouse House has been uncertain how to advertise it and to whom. Many analysts and industry figures are just waiting to type those four painful letters: f, l, o, and p. But putting the delays aside, moving beyond the financial nightmares, how does John Carter as envisioned by Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) fare as a film? Rather well.

We meet our brooding rogue of a hero, played by Taylor Kitsch, in post-Civil War America. Once an adoring husband and father, and also a decorated soldier, Carter is now alone, bitter, and dead set on finding a rumored cave of gold. The cave turns out to be much more than just a lucrative mineral deposit. Rather, it is a passageway between Earth and Mars, and John Carter finds himself spirited to the red planet. There he is submerged into a strange new world of alien tribes and different gravity (allowing him to leap tall buildings in a single bound), but also discovers much is the same: Mars is engaged in its own furious civil war and on the losing side is the beautiful, noble princess (Lynn Collins) who will become Carter's love interest.

The film plays fast and furious with a complex web of names, clans, species, rites, etc., and those ignorant of Burroughs' lore (such as myself, more or less) might find it a tad hard to understand every reference, but the central tensions come into clear focus soon enough, and the film's sense of adventurous fun is persuasive. Stanton and his co-writers, including the genius novelist Michael Chabon, have fashioned a film neither too serious nor too camp. It is aware of its own absurdity, yet also exhibits a real affection for this world and those populating it. It is similar in this sense to the Star Wars pictures at their best: there is enough humor and over-the-top motion to inspire big smiles and hearty laughs, but it never becomes an exercise in total self-reflexive intentional cheese.

And let's just say the astronomical budget, regardless of whether it was a foolish decision on Disney's part, is very much on the screen. Through expert costume and production design, as well as beyond-reproach CGI, a world indeed comes alive before the audience's eyes. Lasting a slightly bloated 140 minutes, John Carter has more than its share of jaw-dropping, elaborate action sequences, including several aerial dogfights and what is best described as the Martian equivalent of the tiger fight in Gladiator. Perhaps Andrew Stanton was aware this gamble resulting in sequels was far from a certainty, so he crowded as much imagination and energy into this film as possible. The experience is maybe a tad exhausting, but also enthralling and gleeful. Contradiction? Maybe, but there it is.  (Oh, and the monster dog is awesome, right?)

The cast is fine on the whole. Kitsch injects a modest, but potent amount of Han Solo charm into his role; this character, ripped and clad in a loincloth and wielding a big sword, may be a tad antiquated, but the actor succeeds in selling him to contemporary audiences. Lynn Collins is a vivacious female lead. Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton provide capable vocal performances as members of a tribe of four-armed green aliens. It is a bit amusing to see a host of respected British and Irish actors, including Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and a very pert-nippled Dominic West, running to and fro in furs and leather underpants, yelling orders and discussing politics, but they seem to be having a degree of fun.

Audiences should embrace John Carter, but I know they won't. At least not in the numbers Disney requires to turn a profit, let alone pursue a franchise. Still, I at least implore you--yes, you--to give it a chance despite what you may have heard. It's imperfect, but bold and very, very fun, too.

B+

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