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Movie Review: John Carter

March 27, 2012

From filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes John Carter-a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). — Courtesy Photo

In a planet far, far, away, a man jumps a hundred feet jump and frees a nation.

It is my recommendation that when watching John Carter, the new science fiction/adventure flick, one lets go of genre fixations and concentrate on the movie at hand. There’s a chance they’ll enjoy it more.

Now, I am not saying that one can absolutely go without some manner of comparison or labeling, chiefly because the original material by Tarzan-scribe Edgar Rice Burroughs (A Princess of Mars) is, by itself, indebted to many such peculiarities — some more whelming and outspoken than others.

The fact of the matter is, “John Carter” is campy fun, because its source material flourishes on being one.

“John Carter” strays from science-fact and focuses on science-fantasy. At that time of writing (circa 1912), man had yet to break-away from the stratosphere, let alone ponder complexities of reaching Mars. So, the manner of transportation from Earth is designed (and flimsily explained) with unapologetic mysticism.

John, the title lead played by Taylor Kitsch with aplomb, is a gold-seeking, self-absorbed, confederate runaway. He is gifted with admirable combat skillset that’s in high-demand at the time of Civil War. However, as most war-scarred combatants, he wants out.

There’s a brief bit of brilliantly timed comedy-relief here, which sets the films tone, when John escapes (a few times without success) during his interrogation. Soon he’s on the run from the army and a gang of apaches. Hiding in a cave marked by a spider-like symbol, he is “telegraphed” to Barsoom (Mars, as called by the natives).

At first the landscape throws you off. Mars’ geography is a distant cousin toArizona, with its interminable sandy terrain, equalized by distantRockies, and a mountain-pass river or two.

Once conscious, John finds it difficult to walk — his Earthly origin makes his body alien to Martian gravity, giving him Superman-like abilities to leap tall mountains in a single fantastic bound. The low-gravity there also tricks-up his strength somewhat.

He soon finds out that there are two biologically diverse races in Mars: Human’s (I don’t know what their physical anthropology labels them as), and the green-skinned, four-armed and literally blue-blooded, Tharks.

Appearing to be nomadic by nature they are a de-cultured class vaguely off-setting the American Indians – noble, and a tad undisciplined in technology.

Post the Na’vi’s from Avatar, Tharks are the second alien species who are sophistically generated en-massevia CGI .

Initially, as any extraterrestrial would, John finds communication difficult — a gap, mystifyingly overcome within the next half-hour. The Tharks’s tender-hearted chieftain Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) is astonished by his ability to leap, and keeps him as a leashed-pet. In another of the films quirkier bits – also the recurrent joke of the film –Tars mistakenly namesJohn,Virginia, thinking the American state’s name as John’s.

On another front in the city ofHelium, the ruler’s (Ciaran Hinds) daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) – also an ace at the Helium Academy of Sciences — discovers the secret of the preternatural Ninth-Ray.

The ray, unknown to Heliumites, has already been awarded to the despotic Sab Than (Dominic West), the sovereign of the rival city ofZondangans. This power-game is run by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a group of self-imposed “watchers” called Thurns, who cradle the necessity of balance.

Dejah’s experiment is sabotaged and she is ordered by daddy to wed Sab Than for the continued survival of Helium. She, naturally, runs away, bumps up with John (cue: romantic-interlude) and rallies up a revolution.

Faring better than anyone in the cast (except Dafoe) Collins, despite being slightly muscle-flexed, is ravishing. Though she still suffers from the paper-cut-out nature of her scripted character, she is nonetheless a sight: A barbarian princess in chic armor, as tough with a sword as Xena or Red Sonja.

The reference to sword-of-sandal fantasies is a must, because despite the alarmingly epic scale of production, John Carter’s recipe is primarily Conan the Barbarian meets Star Wars with a dash of 60’s Star Trek’s battiness.

Although entertainingly adapted by Michael Chabon, Mark Andrews and Pixar vet. Andrew Stanton – of Wall-E and Finding Nemo fame, who also directs – John Carter puts its showbiz factor first, and then superficially weaves-in stronger, more politically-aligned, subtexts.

Unsound, daft and a tad clumpy (with an ear-catching score by Michael Giacchiano) – in all earnestness, however, that’s the way it is meant to be handled.