MOVIE REVIEW: "John Carter" (2012)

Flabbergasted

John Carter.

It’s a venerable name in science fiction, largely unknown to the much vaster universe of consumers marinated in Tarzan at a young age. That makes its fate as a blockbuster quite uncertain (i.e., no Transformers guarantee here). Setting that commercial issue aside, however, what’s it like as a movie?

Not bad. They could have easily embarrassed themselves and didn’t. The story itself is generally faithful to the outline of “Princess of Mars,” with some addition of elements borrowed from later in the series, most obviously the shape-shifting Therns. The special effects may not be brilliant but they are strong, particularly the realization of the Tharks, all green and tall, replete with four arms and tusks. The story on screen actually connects with its pulpy origins, pokes fun at itself a few times, and still manages some honest emotional resonance. Certainly worth a view. My main issues on the down side were pacing and the use of a wrap-around storytelling device that felt unnecessary. Indeed, the latter initially confused my eldest son, but he still liked it once we got to Mars.

We open with an air battle in Mars between the forces of Helium (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys). The Zodangan leader, Sab Than, is having a rough day. His ship is surrounded when he is miraculously saved by the god-like Therns. They show up to give him an all powerful weapon based on “The 9th Ray” (yeah, I know, modern types will snicker at that, but pulps were pulps). Then we shift to New York in 1881. John Carter is being followed by someone. He eludes them, goes to a cable office and sends for his nephew, one Edgar Rice Burroughs. We flash forward to young Edgar arriving to find that John Carter has died. Lots of will details later, he starts reading Carter’s journal. Flash back to 1868 where we get a war-jaded Carter chased by Apaches into the famous cave that sends him to Mars (only this time courtesy of a Thern he kills).

That’s choppy. For a movie, it’s a lot of movement to no real purpose at the start, an extended setup for the closure of the superfluous wrap around. It works against an audience not already familiar with the subject matter. This is, after all, a pulp story. It works best if you just launch into Carter getting to Mars and the Tharks as fast as you can.

That said, Mars is more than okay most of the time. The Zoranga-Helium war merges into the Carter/Thark storyline via Deja Thoris. She’s a brilliant Helium princess about to be married off to the nasty Sab Than due to the machinations of the smug Therns. She flees straight into the arms of Carter and his Thraks, led by the noble Tars Tarkas. And we’re off. It’s alternatingly dramatic, hokey, impressive, spunky and stilted, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For those who’ve read the pulps, it has that feel. As I said, the Tharks are excellent. Woola, the super-fast Martian dog, is an impressive feat that works by giving up and just accepting the basic ridiculousness of the idea. Zodanga and Helium are nicely done (the final battle could have used a little more light, though). Humor is not neglected, either. My favorite bit is when Carter attacks Zodanga to rescue Dejah, only to find she’s back at Helium. The computer animated Tarkas has a very real look of exasperation as he swats Carter’s head. Another bit hard to top is Carter cutting his way up through the body of a giant white gorilla to emerge all icky blue.

It does feel a bit rushed in places, what with the multi-civilization intrigue. That’s another reason that the time sacrificed to the wrap around story isn’t worth it. And as far as marketing goes, I’m surprised they stuck with a completely bland title like “John Carter” without even mentioning “by the author of Tarzan.” Honestly, “John Carter” sounds like one of those tedious art movies starring George Clooney as an ordinary man caught up in blah, blah, woof, woof.

In short, this movie takes on a complex world-building task and not only makes it mostly digestible, but even memorable on occasion. The good guys win, after which we’re back to the wrap around. That does work better as closure than opening, but I still think the movie would have been stronger without it. I have my doubts about John Carter’s ultimate box office success, but my son definitely liked it.

Will conservatives like this: Yes. If they accept the pulp nature and can follow the world building as presented.

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