Buy the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels here:
John Carter (2012) dir. Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, Mark Strong
By Greg Klymkiw
When I do the math that counts, I add up the following John Carter attributes:
A handsome, stalwart hunk hero.
A major league babe.
Noble allies for the hunkster and babe to right wrongs.
An overall mise-en-scene that captures the SPIRIT of the late, great, original author Edgar Rice Burroughs ("Tarzan of the Apes") whose book ("Princess of Mars") the film is based upon.
Eye-popping special effects (that work just as well in 2-D as they do in 3-D, the latter process being one I normally can't stand).
Cool monsters, at that.
An astounding slaves-in-an-arena-fighting-aforementioned-monsters scene.
A rip-snorting battle sequence.
Have I mentioned the babe, yet?
The sum total of the above is that director Andrew (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) Stanton's big screen version of Burroughs's first John Carter novel is a total blast.
The movie details the adventures of our title hero (Taylor Kitsch), a two-fisted soldier from the Civil War who, while on the run and hiding from a military posse trying to force him back into service, is zapped to Mars through a mysterious worm-hole device buried deep within a southwestern American cave. Once on the Red Planet, his Earthly physiology allows him to defy Martian gravity, thus giving him the power to leap incredible distances.
In addition to his brawn and bravery, this gravitational endowment (amongst hunky actor Taylor Kitsch's other obvious endowments - especially one in particular) is extremely helpful when he happens upon a "good" city state being oppressed by a "bad" city state. As luck would have it, the good guys have mega-babe Princess Dejah (the fetching, drop-dead gorgeous Lynn Collins), who kicks mighty butt (as well as being endowed with one) AND is a super-brilliant inventor. She comes up with a device to battle the nasties who want to forge an unholy alliance by forcing her to marry the slimy Sab Than (Dominic West), an evil puppet ruler who provides the front for the real power, Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
And then there are the lizard-like Tharks (think Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace but with four arms and no patois) who try to keep a low profile, but are convinced by John Carter and Princess Deja to join them in their fight against the bad guys. Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe doing great voice work) and Sola (Samantha Morton) are the prime movers and shakers amongst the Tharks who help our hero and heroine.
The "character" I think I loved best happens to be the cutest alien dog I've ever seen in all my days of going to the movies. Granted, it's the only alien dog I've ever seen in the movies, but why quibble? Woola is the Martian dog, ever-drooling with a perpetual tongue hanging out of its wide, happy mouth and resembling a roly-poly big-eyed pus bag. He's super-fast and super-loyal to John Carter.
Old Yeller, Rin Tin Tin and Lassie be damned - Woola's got your collective asses in his jaws.
When I was a kid, I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs with a passion. He was no great genre "thinker" like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke, but his pulpy, punchy style, his serviceable and often cheesy dialogue (even when I was a kid in the 60s it made me guffaw good-naturedly more than once) and most of all, his incredible imagination - creating exciting worlds on the planet Earth and beyond - made him every kid's go-to guy for sci-fi-fantasy-adventure. Stanton's obvious deference to Burroughs renders John Carter the ultimate screen adaptation of the famed Tarzan-creator's work.
The movie is deliciously old-fashioned, even intentionally retro - but NEVER with tongue-in-cheek. Stanton plays everything straight which lets the natural humour of the material shine and most of all, allows the derring-do thrill and delight ever-so tantalizingly.
The action, humour and major battle scene at the end are as good as any I've seen in years. Curiously enough, there isn't a single story element from the original Burroughs that hasn't already been pilfered by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and pretty much any and every sci-fi silver screen outing since the books came out.
If truth be told, the elements Lucas lifted from Burroughs for his Star Wars films were enough to grip a couple of movie-going generations, but what Stanton delivers is the real thing and for me, is a lot more enjoyable. Lucas's Attack of the Clones, is probably my favourite Star Wars picture since it managed to capture everything the others merely purport to. I realize I might be in a minority here, but the majority haven't seen as many movies as I have. And John Carter, though reminiscent at times of SW:AOTC, beats that one and all the other Lucas efforts hands down.
By now, everyone has discussed - ad-nauseum - what a big box office flop Stanton's film is. I think this has less to do with the picture or the $250 million price tag - it has everything to do with Disney's utterly pathetic marketing. They blew it big time. Changing the shooting title "John Carter of Mars" to simply John Carter was the first idiotic move. For those fanboys who love Burroughs - fine, but to reel in new generations of moviegoers it would have made far more sense to include the "of Mars" appendage. The ads and posters Disney created are utterly lame also. Add a stupid generic title to ho-hum graphics and there's already a big strike against the picture in the marketplace.
John Carter's hugest per-capita theatrical grosses in the world were in Russia. They maintained the dumb title, but it sure looks cool in cyrillic letters and it sounds even cooler in Russian. Most of all, though, the graphics on the Russian ads and posters were deliciously retro, but so in the spirit of Burroughs that I'd argue a whole new generation might have been attracted to this ultra-cool approach if it had been employed round the world.
Worst of all, where were the literary tie-ins? All Disney could come up with was a novelization (!!!) of Burroughs's original book and the current screenplay.
Where were the tie-ins with the actual Burroughs Carter books? They should have been out at least a year ago - building a whole new interest in his work with younger generations. Looking at other recent successful film franchises based on books, Burroughs more than deserved a shot at capturing the imaginations of young readers. Besides, his writing equals that of Leo Tolstoy when compared to the pathetic noodlings of J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games).
John Carter is a movie that does have its fair share of longueurs, but I suspect this is due to some obvious truncations in the final picture editing. Part of me thinks the pace might have actually improved overall if the picture had been longer. The movie is already long, so I don't see the logic in keeping things on the cutting floor that might have improved the overall flow of the picture.
Disney screwed up. In fact, the company's recent proclamation of instituting a $200 million write-down based on the movie's poor performance at the boxoffice has the horrible whiff of a lazy company that had no idea what to do with this unique genre picture and decided - possibly in advance - to seek a tax loss.
While John Carter is still playing on a few decent big screens, anyone who loves sprawling sci-fi fantasy adventures, owes it to themselves to see it now.
That said, it's going to look great on Blu-Ray.
"John Carter" is currently in worldwide theatrical release and has been miserably marketed and distributed by Disney.
For a great perspective on Disney's pathetic marketing, the following is a fantastic open letter to Richard Ross, Chairman of the Disney Company. Read it HERE!