John Carter

Much as Warner went back to the work of Jules Verne to start up its successful (and very Disney-like) “Journey” franchise,  with “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Disney is now going back to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs in its effort to start a new sci-fi franchise.

To many readers and moviegoers, Burroughs is better known as the creator of “Tarzan,” which has been made into countless of movies and series of movies (especially in the 1930s).  But his novels have had a long-lasting influence on “Star Wars,” “Dune,” “Superman” and “Avatar.”  ( end note).

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=49707

YouTube direct link: first 10 minutes

“John Carter” is a big action-adventure movie, which reportedly cost more than $250 million to make. It’s released in the early spring season– there’s nothing like that in the marketplace right now.

Opinions may differ about the charisma of the lead actor, Taylor Kitsch, and his potential to become a bona fide action movie star.  Verdict is out there, as far as I am concerned.

But “John Carter benefits immensely from its supporting ensemble, which includes, among others, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Dominic West, and Ciaran Hinds.

The timing of “John Carter” release is most suitable: This year marks the 100th anniversary of Burroughs’ character John Carter, the hero featured in the series, beginning with “A Princess of Mars,” the first novel in Burroughs’ Barsoom adventures.  Over the years, John Carter has become a heroic icon in various forms of pop culture: novels, comic books, artwork, animation, on the big-screen and TV.

This is a personal film for director Andrew Stanton, who claims to have been a fan of Barsoom since his childhood, as he recently recalled: “I stumbled across these books at the perfect age. I was about ten and I just fell in love with the concept of a human finding himself on Mars, among amazing creatures in a strange new world. A stranger in a strange land. It was a very romantic aspect of adventure and science fiction. I always thought it would be cool to see this realized on the big screen.”

Based on Burroughs’s Barsoom stories, published in 1912, “John Carter” is expected be the first among multiple sequels, but that would depend largely on audience response, namely box-office grosses, especially on opening weekend.

Harsh critics may claim that the picture—sort of a “Star Wars: knockoff–is far too long (over two hours) to engage the consistent attention of kids and adolescents, the primary target audience for such fare.

After an uneven, a bit confusing prologue on Mars, the tale proper kicks in with former Confederate officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) on the run from the U.S. Army and Apaches in Monument Valley (which John Ford put on the movie map—and on our collective consciousness–with his stunning Westerns, many of which starring John Wayne, such as “Stagecoach and “The Searchers”).

Encounters a visiting Martian elite in a cave, Carter suddenly finds himself transported to the “dying planet” of Mars, known as Barsoom to the locals, who themselves look like visitors.

On Barsoom, Carter inhabits a stronger duplicate body, while his real body sleeps through the whole adventure back on earth. Soon known as “the One Who Jumps,” he can run fast, punch effortlessly, and jump with the same bravura as Superman himself.

Carter falls in with the Tharks (lots of extra arms), who are essentially the Na’vi of Barsoom, although not as civilized as their Pandora compatriots, seen in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

The Tharks are on the sidelines of an endless war between two cities of sun-burnt human types, boasting tattooed faces and British accents. “Let red men kill red men until only Tharks remain!” exclaims a frustrated Thark patriarch (Willem Dafoe).

Predictably, Carter soon becomes the key figure in ending the war and bringing balance to Barsoom.

Arguably, “John Carter” was given green light and its considerable budget, as a direct result of the smash hit “Avatar,” a movie with which it shares some plot similarities (See below).

But on another level, “John Carter” is more indebted to George Lucas than James Cameron. In many ways, it looks, sounds, and feels like a “Star Wars” prequel, especially the now decade-old “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.”

One of the final set pieces in “John Carter,” which differ radically in their quality and thrills and frills, is a near-remake of the arena scene from “Attack of the Clones,” which should make it less exciting for movie connoisseurs.

Not to neglect the female contingency, the movie contains a love interest for Carter on Barsoom: Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins).  When first met, she is unwillingly engaged to another man, the evil but attractive Prince Sab Than (Dominic West). But we know it’s a matter of time before better, more romantic things, come her way.

The princess spends a lot of screen time sharing her obsession with tapping into some kind of Martian power source called “the ninth ray,” which the narrative never bothers to fully explain.

It seems a trend now for animations specialists to step into the live-action arena.  Ace animation helmer Andrew Stanton (“A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo,” and “WALL-E,” his undisputable masterpiece) makes his live action debut with “John Carter.”   His staging and orchestrating of action scenes is not as facile or smooth as those of his fellow Pixar heavyweight Brad Bird, who directed last year the Tom Cruise vehicle, “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol,” to great critical claim and commercial success.

Stanton’s Pixar films have served as models of concise storytelling and character development, but this film, with a running time of 132 minutes, overextends its welcome by at least half an hour.

The characters are mostly familiar science-fiction types. Kitsch growls his way through the yarn, almost like Josh Brolin in the Coen brothers’ “True Grit.”  Sporadically, he is able to bring heroic quality to the lead role of Carter, a part that screams for an actor like Harrison Ford in his youthful prime (“Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

The screenplay, by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and the novelist Michael Chabon, who penned “Wonder Boys” and other subtle novels), is uneven in wit and sharpness of observation.  Some of the dialogue is riddled with unnecessary jargon.

After more than two years of post-“Avatar” 3D, audiences are more critical of movies’ technical elements.  The new, high standards were manifest in their glory in two recent works, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2” and Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “Hugo.”

End Notes

It should be noted, in fairness to both George Lucas and James Cameron that both directors have publicly acknowledged the influence of Burroughs’ s work on their respective cinematic vision.

Jeff Farr contributed to this essay.

Cast

John Carter – Taylor Kitsch

Dejah Thoris – Lynn Collins

Tars Tarkas – Willem Dafoe

Tal Hajus – Thomas Haden Church

Sola – Samantha Morton

Sab Than – Dominic West

Tardos Mors – Ciaran Hinds

Matai Shang – Mark Strong

Credits

A Walt Disney Pictures release.

Directed by Andrew Stanton.

Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon.

Produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson, and Lindsey Collins.

Cinematography, Daniel Mindel.

Editing, Eric Zumbrunnen.

Original Music, Michael Giacchino.

Running time: 132 minutes.