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I am Salty The Beast. I am what you might call a Renaissance man, meaning I find interest in most every medium. I love watching movies, listening to music, writing music, playing video games, making videos, etc.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: John Carter

And here I was thinking that “Cowboys & Aliens” was going to be the only movie I would see to make the cockamamie merging between a traditional Western set in the 19th century and a science-fiction action epic involving extraterrestrial life forms. The title character in “John Carter” (played by Taylor Kitsch, or Gambit in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) starts out as an unruly Virginian cavalryman resisting imprisonment by his superiors, stumbles into a cave somewhere in the Arizona territory, gets ambushed by a malevolent shapeshifter, and is whisked away to Mars by means of a radiant blue medallion.

Turns out that Mars is not without air and not without living organisms like we have been told throughout history. There is an atmosphere whose conditions are breathable for this earthling, and the neighboring red planet is largely populated with tall, green alien creatures who can best be described as a mutation of a Na’vi from “Avatar,” an aphid and an extinct straight-tusked elephant. Of course, they speak in a tongue that is unintelligible to the average citizen of Earth, so it is initially hopeless for John Carter to communicate with the many inhabitants of Mars (or as they call it, Basoom). Their speech appears in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen up until one Martian serves the human a milky substance that makes understanding and conversing with these beings a piece of cake. Because there isn’t anything the typical couch potato filmgoer hates more than being demanded to read all those words.

John Carter turns up on Mars at a very tumultuous time in the planet’s territorial affairs. Two humanoid nations are waging a war against each other, and one of them has the blessing of unlimited power on their side. In one nation, we meet the fierce princess known as Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), one of the more interesting female characters of the fantasy genre in a while. Yet she is still a master sword-wielder when it comes time to defend herself. The other nation is headed by a slimy prince named Sab Than (Dominic West) who offers a compromise to the war if Princess Dejah accedes to an arranged marriage with him.

Thankfully for Carter, Mars grants him powers that wow the planet’s inhabitants. Due to the different gravitational conditions, our hero is endowed with super muscle density and the impressive ability to leap the length of a football field. There is a sublime early scene in which Carter is first adapting to his Mars legs, stumbling and propelling himself off the planet’s surface. With his newfound skills, he rises to the occasion and assists the princess’s side in battle, though not without first desperately trying to find a way to get back to his home planet.

As I watched “John Carter,” a substantial amount of science-fiction films popped into my brain, including the previously mentioned “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Avatar,” but also the “Star Wars” saga, “Star Trek” and “Galaxy Quest,” and even a few non-sci-fi movies like “Immortals.” I would later discover that this film is loosely based on an old series of pulp fiction novels written by the late Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically the first installment A Princess Of Mars. When I said “old,” I meant REALLY old. This 2012 film adaptation, in addition to being the first ever film appearance of the John Carter character, marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the character’s creation back in 1912.
Burroughs’ work essentially gave birth to modern science-fiction fantasy as we currently know it; this is the kind of hardcore geek touchstone that George Lucas looked to for inspiration on the original “Star Wars” back in 1977. Pretty nuts, right? In fact, what’s more stupefying is that nobody had ever decided to bring this legendary protagonist to the movie theaters up until now. But he’s finally arrived in a $250 million budget blockbuster that is sure to motivate a franchise if it performs successfully at the box office. Though the character’s live-action debut is visually arresting in every sense of the word, it is also a slight letdown considering John Carter’s influential status.

Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s golden boys who directed some of the animation studio’s greatest achievements (“A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”), breaks free for the first time from animated features as fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird (“The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”) did recently with “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.” Stanton’s previous work had stories that worked on multiple levels of enjoyment, simple yet memorable and endearing characterizations, and a delightfully genuine warmth and wit that is missing from a large majority of mainstream films. Those works appeal to just about every audience imaginable. His new film could use a few spoonfuls of each of these to make for a tastier, more satisfying result.

Still, “John Carter” proves to be, if nothing else, a reasonably solid diversion. Its visuals are breathtaking and the action is well-done, which are usually the only two requirements needed for the sensibilities of the average person simply looking for a good time over the weekend. It is just that you would think after a century of anticipation and buildup for the father of an entire branch of fantasy storytelling to finally break out in a theatrical film, the end result would have more to it.

VERDICT:
««½

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