MOVIE REVIEW: John Carter

(Image: www.imdb.com)

JOHN CARTER-- 4 STARS

Not to start on a soapbox right of the gate, but the topic of "youthful ignorance" keeps popping in my mind and begs to be discussed with the release of John Carter from Walt Disney Pictures.  Simply put, without a little investment in discovering or investigating the past, the youth of today likely know very little of the generation before them.  Kids today don't know a world without computers, touchscreen phones (or even with corded phones), flat-screen televisions, and non-CGI animation.  For example, to an entire present generation, Star Wars is a video game series that is based on "really old" movies from 1999-2005, let alone the far superior originals from 1977-1983.  Furthermore, Smurfs and Chipmunks are hip computer characters, not a village do-good-ers or an adopted family of ultra-falsettos.  Do you want a fun trick?  Put a toddler of today in front of an episode of He-Man and the Master of the Universe and watch the light bulb above their head explode from equal parts confusion out of the comfort zone and creative inspiration.

Cyclically, we adults are not innocent because youthful ignorance happens with every generation.  We were those kids once too.  The Harlem Renaissance sparked jazz and blues, which gave birth to R&B and soul.  There was a generation of "boy-band" lovers 15 years ago that likely never heard of the Beatles without help.  Now, we get to watch all of that become more Guitar Hero filler than true homage or have kids who know Justin Timberlake more from Saturday Night Live and movies than music.  These examples could surface all day and night.

The most important thing one can do to avoid youthful ignorance is to learn and know one's influences.  Few things are entirely new in any Hollywood genre.  Something appearing unique always has an inspiration or influence from the past that was the creative spark towards the new twist of the present.  That's the thing people are not going to appreciate about John Carter.  An entire generation of either uninformed, uneducated, or youthfully ignorant viewers are going to call it an Avatar knockoff or a Star Wars wannabe when nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, in an opposite trajectory, we wouldn't have Avatar or Star Wars without John Carter.

The film is based mostly on Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, the first of an epic 11-part series of science fiction pulp novels set on our red planet neighbor.  Burroughs is better known as the creator of Tarzan, another character that, in 2012, has likely become dated, even with a Disney animated treatment twelve years ago. The infinitely detailed world that Burroughs created 100 years ago in 1912 when it originally debuted as a magazine serial was transcendent, wildly inventive, and one of the major influences for George Lucas in creating Star Wars, James Cameron's Avatar world, and the science-fictional novelists that followed such as Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan.  To those gentleman, John Carter was their childhood "light bulb" discovery and fantasy, and it came in novel form, not a cartoon or a movie.  Unless he or she has a nostalgic and eclectic pair of parents, a ten-year-old wearing 3D glasses and a Justin Bieber t-shirt today isn't going to know that.

I can't claim intelligence or superiority on this matter.  I'm a movie guy, not a reader.  Like just about every novel adapted into a movie (sorry again, Twilight and Harry Potter fans), I knew nothing of John Carter before watching it, but I took the time afterwards to research and gain understanding (even if it's just through Wikipedia) of the scope and creative roots towards what I watched.  Before I even got home, I was impressed with what I saw.  After I learned more, my admiration for John Carter only grew.  The movie isn't going to win any writing awards and can't hold a candle to the memorable lines and mythology of something like Star Wars, but John Carter admirably brings pulp spectacle to eye-popping life.

Taylor Kitsch, best known from TV's Friday Night Lights and soon for this summer's Battleship, stars as the title hero.  He begins as a grieving Confederate Civil War veteran who tragically lost his family to a fire and his story is being read to us out of his personal journal by his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara).  While prospecting in Arizona, he discovers a cave of gold while dodging Apache braves and his former military duty.  In that cave, he is mystically transported to a barren desert landscape unlike any he's seen, with just a mysterious medallion as a possible cause for this change.  Upon moving, John notices a difference in gravity that grants his Earthly muscles with superhuman strength and agility, including incredible leaping ability.  Once he meets the natives, 15-foot-tall green creatures with six limbs called Tharks, he realizes he's far from home.  He's in (or on) Barsoom, better known to John as the planet Mars.  It's an aging and dying planet that is slowly losing its oxygen, water, and atmosphere.

The Tharks wonder at his abilities and take him captive, where John develops a good rapport with one of their leaders, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe).  Soon, John encounters and intervenes with two feuding factions of humans, the peaceful city of Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), and the war-mongering Sab Than (Dominic West) from the rival city Zodanga.  In a daring display of this agility and courage, John rescues the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  With his unmatched capabilities, John finds himself to be somewhat of a chess piece that could swing the balance of control between the warring humans and the outcast Tharks.  Watching over all are the holy Therns (embodied by professional movie villain Mark Strong) who are the puppeteers of power and hold the key to John's way home.

If all of that lost you, don't worry.  Just suspend the necessary disbelief as you would with any fantasy setting.  Remember, this story is made to be pure escapist entertainment, derived from early-20th century pulp, right there with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.  The movie has a lingo and a language all its own, not unlike its Avatar and Star Wars imitators, and that necessary origin story narrative slows the movie quite a bit at times.  At other times, the Civil War and family tragedy flashbacks create a nice extra layer to John's character arc and motivations.  You're not going to catch and connect all of the details straightaway, and neither is a ten-year-old kid.  Even with its flaws, it's a lot better than The Last Airbender.  Along the same lines, no one's going to be up for any acting awards next winter.  Taylor Kitsch isn't earning an Oscar any more than Mark Hamill would with Star Wars  or Arnold Schwarzenegger for Conan the Barbarian.  

The same goes for Lynn Collins' tough damsel-in-distress Dejah, who attains the proper level of eye candy without making waves.  Taylor, with his prerequisite abs and soulful demeanor that match his characters' grief and courage, plays the tortured leading man on the Brad-Pitt-Lite spectrum just fine.  The supporting characters are worse, but let it go.

Besides, the story and acting takes a back seat to the wonder and spectacle that Pixar director Andrew Stanton (in his first live-action feature after delivering Wall-E and Finding Nemo) and the talented team at Disney have created.  That's what the people are coming to see.  With a budget reportedly north of $250 million, John Carter is packed with top-of-the-line CGI visual effects and impressive 3D scale that deliver on their price and promise.  The movie, with its barbaric battles, earns its PG-13 rating (a rarity for Disney) and keeps the lovable sidekick tally very low, showing the dedication to creating more of an adult and honest interpretation of Burroughs' novels than just another amusement ride and Happy Meal promotion.

John Carter, not unlike its title character, jumps off of the screen in many ways.  Stanton, much like fellow Pixar director Brad Bird who recently made his live-action debut with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, brings an artist's eyes to shooting breathtaking visuals and coherent action at the right pace and size, unlike the shaky cameras, constant close-ups, and obsessive jump-cutting of Michael Bay-style action movies.  The result is a sumptuous feast for the 3D eyes and a movie experience much easier to watch than any of the The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean franchise chapters or other live-action Disney efforts like The Sorceror's Apprentice or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.  Put it right next to Tron: Legacy for great Disney visuals.  Burroughs' legendary visions and creations, from the Mars locales (thanks, barren state of Utah!) to the distinctive creatures, are stunningly rendered and don't overpower the humans beside them.  Behind the visuals, Pixar veteran Michael Giacchino's absolutely brilliant musical score give the movie a magical, sweeping, and otherworldly Indiana Jones feel.  It steers the movie along and brings us deep themes, romantic hues, and right tone and aura of old-fashioned adventure.

Even with its narrative flaws that drag the pace at times and unmemorable acting, John Carter is a worthy and overdue (many studios have been trying to get this made since the 1930s) edition to the science fiction and fantasy genres.  The climax is well done and begs for a sequel and continuing franchise for Stanton, Kitsch, Collins, and company.  I hope the movie finds a welcoming audience and earns good bank.  In an industry filled with bad and unnecessary sequels every year, John Carter is a film that deserves a sequel and will get better with time.  Still, and I'm going to continue to predict this, pessimistically, too many people are going to make uninformed and pitiful Avatar and Star Wars comparisons.  Let the source material and this ending product stand on its own.  All it's trying to be is itself.  It does so successfully, and isn't trying to copy anything.

LESSON #1: CHOOSING SIDES IN A CONFLICT-- The different Martian creatures, factions, and societies are, in a way, thinly veiled allegories to race relations.  Each side is sharply divided and prejudice, before the transcendent figure of the John Carter character bridges respect and relations between them.  Parallels can made to similar notions of noble savagery and racial themes that are found in the 19th century American western frontier that John originated from.

LESSON #2: KNOWING THE RAMIFICATIONS OF TAKING A STAND-- That willingness to unite people doesn't occur for John until he becomes right with himself and lets go of the past that plagues him.  At one point midway into film, in an emotional battle scene, John has finally decided to break neutrality, take up arms, and fight.  Singlehandedly, he draws his sword and takes on a charging army with ferocity and the willingness to give his life.  The movie artfully and poignantly combines every swing of his sword with a flashback memory of him finding and burying his lost family.  That scene signified John's emotional investment to draw the necessary moral courage and understand the ramifications of his role and actions.

LESSON #3: FINDING A CAUSE WORTH FIGHTING FOR-- Much like the racial comparisons from an earlier lesson, John quickly sees the parallels between the Martian conflict and his own experiences during the Civil War and the purging of Native Americans out west.  While extremely capable at combat, he is reluctant to choose sides and doesn't see a cause worth fighting for until it presents itself for him.  Though it's sometimes not the case, all conflict should represent causes worth fighting for.  A just cause should be a civil, righteous, and moral requirement to justify the strife and violence.