There are certain filmmakers that simply understand creation, world-building and authenticity; Andrew Stanton is one of those filmmakers. The visual extraordinaire behind the Pixar classics Finding Nemo and Wall-E brings these talents into his first live-action feature, the blockbuster John Carter. Based on the classic stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film thrives in its world-building and stunning, creative visuals which Stanton infuses with the same old-school sensibilities which made his Pixar features so wondrous.
From one red landscape to another, “Friday Night Lights” alum Taylor Kitsch portrays John Carter, a civil war veteran who chances on a portal to Mars in a mysterious Arizona cave. Using the impressive Arizona landscape as a double for the red planet, it is no wonder that Carter is initially unsure of his displacement from his own world. Between the Indiana Jones-style humor during the exposition scenes pre-Mars to Carter’s first encounters with the gravity-lacking red plane, there is an old-school playfulness to the film.
Carter soon discovers he is in fact on the war-stricken planet of Barsoom (the native name for Mars), which is inhabited by the warring tribes of the Red Men and the villainous, nomadic Zodangans, both of whom are essentially human-like. The film then gets into the much stranger realm with the Tharks, a group of green, nine-foot tall, four-armed creatures with tusks who capture John Carter and introduce him to the bizarre world of Barsoom.
Thark leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) is rightfully fascinated by Carter, who is as strange a species to the Tharks, as the Tharks are to Carter. Not bound by normal laws of physics on Barsoom, Carter can jump hundreds of feet into the air and bound about the desert landscape at will. For a war-stricken planet, Carter is clearly a unique commodity for all three tribes, and as his presence on the planet becomes known to all parties, interest in him is piqued.
The Zodangans – led by their leader Seb Than (Dominic West) and the mysterious shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong) – see Carter as a potential threat to their power-hungry agendas. For the Red Men and people of Helium, Carter represents a last-change hope for their dying people. Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) befriends Carter after fleeing her home as her father the Jeddak (leader) of Helium, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) offers her hand in marriage to Seb Than in a last-ditch effort for a truce.
With the complex narrative set, Stanton then begins to deliver a series of stunningly gorgeous sequences which fully capture the breathtaking scope of Barsoom, as well as the civil war that threatens to destroy it. From the onset, the story never feels all that new, as many viewers will be quick to point out the similarities to other now classic sci-fi and fantasy movies. While this is undeniably true, I can’t help but give John Carter a pass in this instance, as it is working from source material by Burroughs which inspired essentially every sci-fi fantasy we’ve come to know and love. From Star Wars and Indiana Jones, to Avatar and even The Lord of the Rings, the comparisons are clear.
The story has some clear issues, as the narrative gets muddled at times and the dialogue is a bit messy throughout. But both these issues feel very indicative of what John Carter is at its core, and for the most part end up being serviceable to the film as a whole. Andrew Stanton is the film’s true star, using his clear talents for world-building he displayed at Pixar with Finding Nemo and Wall-E, as he fashions the utterly unique world of Barsoom. It is a testament to his gift that, through occasionally convoluted and ultimately complicated narrative vision, the craftsmanship and vision of Barsoom as its own entity is able to flourish.
Taylor Kitsch struggles early on as John Carter, as he doesn’t quite fit as both a widower and hardened civil war veteran. He is perhaps simply too young to completely fit the character during the scenes on Earth. Thankfully, during this time in the film, a nice appearance from Bryan Cranston, as well as some Indiana Jones style comedy, takes weight off of his shoulders. It is upon arrival to Barsoom that Kitsch is able fully develop into his role, and when put alongside a terrific supporting cast as well as a lovely co-star in the fierce, yet tender Lynn Collins, the character development and performances are solid.
At its core, John Carter is an old-school sci-fi/fantasy that feels the perfect mix of pulp and space opera. Barsoom is a richly imagined world, with clear parallels to both the modern day, as well as its narrative counter-part in our own nineteenth century world. Andrew Stanton displays his clear filmmaking talents shift well into the live-action landscape, as he filmed the action sequences with a wonderfully calm and level manner, never using shaky-cam or quick cuts that have plagued modern filmmaking.
Based on “The Princess of Mars,” the first in a nine-part series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter behaves as an origin story, developing our basis for the splendid world of Barsoom, as well as introducing us to the many characters that inhabit the landscape. While the exposition is clearly present, Stanton does a solid job of making it interesting and relevant. Despite the many woes of getting John Carter to the big screen, Stanton makes the pay-off big with a breathtaking, pulp, and stylish realization of the magnificent world first realized by Edgar Rice Burroughs a century ago.
Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action.)
John Carter opens nationwide on March 9th.