One of my friends has a problem with lying. His popular tall tale is claiming his father, John Carter, has worked as an astronaut, sports coach, and lucrative businessman. In response, the rest of us had invented an origin series for the man who became notable for fighting the good fight as part of America’s Alien Force Defense. However, regardless of the film’s title, Andrew Stanton’s John Carter isn’t based on our stories, rather Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-volume pulp fiction franchise, “Barsoom.” Yet it too revolves around an Earth dweller combating against a kingdom of extraterrestrials.
Despite influencing science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, and even astronomers such Carl Sagan, I’d never read (or even heard of) the series prior to this adaptation. In that respect, the movie, which escapes a 79 year long bout in “development hell,” earns my admiration. However, unlike the director’s previous films — “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E” — Stanton’s debut into live-action filmmaking is focused more on action than it is tight storytelling. Nevertheless, there is an attention to detail that only those well-versed in animation could replicate. From the native aliens, which all have different markings and tusk sizes, to the contrast between stony environments and majestic metal palaces, the film’s world is incredibly bold. And while there’s a lack of cohesion in the first act — it jumps too quickly between moody period piece and loony western — once the central story’s established, it all become a wildly entertaining opener to 2012’s blockbuster season.
Written by the director alongside Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, John Carter is an adaptation of the first book in Burroughs’ grandiose vision. In the movie, Mars is not the barren wasteland we believe it to be. In fact, it is home to two human cities at war with each other. However, the destruction of its atmosphere is destroying the planet and only an alliance can save it. Fortunately, Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate captain mysteriously transported to our red neighbor, becomes embroiled in the political strife. There, he chooses sides with a beautiful Princess named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and the world’s spear-wielding, rhino-riding indigenous race, the Tharks which are led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).
Amongst the vibrant visuals, there are characters who continuously earn their audience’s interest. But unfortunately, neither Carter — nor his respective actor — ever surpasses basic Hollywood conventions. However, his journey is made all the more pleasant by Collins’ infectious charisma. Unlike most female accomplices, Thoris is an independent and strong supporting woman and, at times, it seems like she’s more in control than her shirtless ally. Also notable is Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Although it’s asserted that he serves to oversee destiny’s completion, the scribes never explicitly explain his backstory. This introduces an idiosyncratic mystery and, whilst he’s often depicted mingling with the villains, the character goes beyond the grain of cackling antagonists.
John Carter isn’t the most original or thought-provoking cinema, however, brilliant special effects and likable characters make it easy to forgive the film’s spotty elements. With it, weekend audiences can enjoy quality science fiction, while my friend can finally add to his long list of fatherly accomplishments that a movie was “made about” his dad’s journey into deep space.