Thursday, June 14, 2012

BRD: John Carter

What a stupid title. Yes, that's the name of the main character, but it's not as if it just jumps out and drags you in. John Carter of Mars would have at least identified the series to fans, and the actual first book in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series is "A Princess of Mars." Either title would have been immediately recognizable to the fan base, if to no one else. But just John Carter? Give me a break.

That said, I enjoyed the actual film. Lots of silly fun with at least one seriously poignant moment. Nothing that will bring home an Oscar, but a solid action-adventure frolic once it gets through its opening setup(s).

John Carter tells the story of, er, John Carter, former member of the Army of Northern Virginia fighting for the Confederate States in the Civil War. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has journeyed to the southwest in search of fortune, never mind the fame. In a cave he encounters a strange being. A brief scuffle ensues, said being is killed, and Carter finds himself on Mars faster than you can say Barsoom. Once there, he becomes embroiled in the planet's politics.

Just so you know, on Baroom (Mars) "politics" generally means, "Let's just us kill all of them!"

The film thrives with setups, maybe too many. The green six-limbed Tharks are in a constant state of war with the red men (though it's more like abundant red tattoos than pigmentation). Between the red men there is constant fighting. There is some race of superbeings who (quite literally) float above it all and for inexplicable reasons like making everyone fight everyone else. And of course there's Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collings), a princess of Mars, Carter's love interest, forced to marry the ruler of another kingdom to bring peace. Sure. The first book is much more straight-forward than this; where did all this hullabaloo come from?

Nonetheless, for the most part, director Andrew Stanton juggles this collection of cliche with skill and even a sense of style. This marks Stanton's debut as a live action director, his previous films having been animated Pixar adventures. For the most part he's very straight forward. Characters and situations are pretty much exactly as presented, no surprises, no sudden twists.

Which is fine by me. This is an action-adventure film set on Mars, true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Burroughs' writings.

It's not perfect, far from it. For instance, it would have been nice if Barsoom had looked like another planet and not the locale where John Ford filmed all his westerns. So many times I expected John Wayne to ride up, Ward Bond in tow, and say, "Follow me, pilgrim."

Then again, the film often plays like a sprawling, classic western, albeit one smashed together with a swords and sandals epic.

When alien looking stuff does appear, it's all gorgeous. The soaring towers of Helium? Awesome. The flying craft of the red men? Fantastic. Woola, the "dog" ordered to protect Carter? I want one! And the Tharks... Dear Lord, the Tharks. They're not exactly as I imagined them while reading the books, but in so many ways they're better. When an army of them opened fire with their incredible rifles, I might have actually squee'd.

Everyone does a reasonable job of acting. No one is particularly wonderful, but neither is anyone even remotely not good. There is at least one stand out moment, though, which starts as yet another cliche and then Stanton turns it into something else, something amazing. On the Blu-Ray the chapter is titled "A Change of Heart," which is also the name of the music queue from composer Michael Giacchino. I don't want to spoil what it is, but that's where you'll find it. Don't just skip to that chapter, either. Watch the film and earn the moment.

In the end, just because everyone is playing to a script you've seen a hundred times or more doesn't mean it's not fun. The cinematography is solid, not a shaky cam in sight. Actions scenes are well done, making it easy to follow along.

John Carter deserved a broader audience than it found. The horrible title and the tepid marketing are largely to blame. The film itself, as with all of Stanton's work, has a very human heart at its core, one designed to bring a smile to your face at the end and maybe even a little lump to your throat.

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