That John Carter, director Andrew Stanton's expansive (and expensive) adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's classic literary hero, was a labor of love for the helmer of Pixar spectacles Wall-E and Finding Nemo is evident in the care and forethought that's been laced into every frame. This is a film that lacks in neither scope, attitude, nor ambition. And in the end, if it falls just short of being truly exceptional, it's because of something over which the filmmakers frustratingly have no control.
So many of the themes, so much of the imagery that Burroughs (more well-known, perhaps, for his other literary creation, Tarzan of the Apes) pioneered in his many John Carter of Mars novels have been appropriated and scavenged by everything from Star Wars to Avatar in the century since they first saw print that it's a struggle to remind oneself that this isn't merely the umpteenth restatement of that iconography, but is rather the statement that all those others drew inspiration from.
Starring Taylor Kitsch as the title character -- a former southern soldier in the aftermath of the Civil War haunted by his own personal tragedy -- the film follows Carter as his discovery of an otherwordly artifact ends up "projecting" him onto our neighboring planet, Mars (Barsoom, as it's called by the natives), where the difference in gravity gives him heightened strength and the ability to leap great distances (à la Superman on our world).
After the usual fish-out-of-water stuff where he becomes acquainted with Mars' different races (including many-armed greenskins, and red-skinned humanoids), Carter soon learns that the planet is in the midst of a civil war of its own. The evil Sab Than (Dominic West), armed with a destructive new technology, is sweeping across the planet and threatening to overtake the shining Martian city of Helium unless he is given the hand of Helian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Helping to anchor the proceedings are Kitsch (confidently making his starring debut after several years on TV's Friday Night Lights -- though most of my readers will probably remember his turn as Gambit in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and the revelatory Collins (also from X-Men Origins) who manages to appear both alluring and intimidating while wearing a variety of outfits that are one step above the "slave girl" costume that Carrie Fisher was forced into in Return of the Jedi -- no easy feat!
Carter also benefits from a solid supporting cast, including Rome alums Ciarán Hinds, and James Purefoy, and another villainous turn from the always excellent Mark Strong, as well as (in CGI form), Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church as Tharks, the warrior race Carter first encounters on Barsoom. Taken together, the strength of the cast helps convey a sense of seriousness beyond the usual lightweight, disposable fare. Also worthy of mention is the luxurious musical score by Michael Giacchino, which evokes equal parts Miklós Rosza and John Williams, and confirms Giacchino as one of the brightest lights on the film score scene.
In bringing Burroughs' vision -- which, believe it or not, has never seen the inside of a cineplex until now -- to the silver screen at last, Stanton has toiled hard to create a world that has a rich and layered history beyond that which we see. This serves as both plus and minus, in the long-term. One the one hand, it signals the depth of the mythology, making the situations more real in the process, and the races, religion, and different species on Barsoom also pointing the way to the many storytelling avenues open for further exploration should the opportunity for a follow-up materialize (which I'd welcome).
On the other hand, like any property that arrives with a built-in fanbase, the risk is always that a large neon "Not Welcome" sign is being hung on the door to steer away anyone not already versed in the peculiar minutiae of this particular universe. Certainly in my case, not being intimately familiar with the literary Carter (my experience with the character pretty much begins and ends with the Marvel Comics series from the 1970s), I did struggle at times to distinguish a Thark from a Thern, and I can only imagine what that experience would be like for someone coming in completely cold.
Another problem I can easily see deterring new audiences is the suspension of disbelief the concept requires, and which I suspect will prove the toughest buy for many. It's been one hundred years since Burroughs first dreamed up the exploits of John Carter on Mars, and in that interim we've gained one hundred years worth of knowledge about the Red Planet, making its visions of fantastic civilizations and far-fetched technology potentially a bridge too far for many audiences.
In fact, the folks at Disney were apparently so frightened of this possibility that they neglected to even include the word "Mars" in the title, no doubt for fear that it would scare off the same audiences that ignored Mars Needs Moms in droves. But Barsoom isn't Mars. Not in a way that matters, anyway. It might as well be Tatooine, or Pandora, or Arrakis, or any other new realm that an everyman hero must learn to navigate. It's not so much about the "where" as it is the "how." How does our hero react when he arrives? How does this experience change him?
These are the kind of questions that make stories like this compelling. Given how many now-familiar tropes the movie traffics in, one can be forgiven for thinking there's nothing new for John Carter to say. And while there isn't much new terrain here, what distinguishes Carter is the quality and richness of what they extract from the soil. In mining the Carter mythos, rather than trying to pretzel Burroughs' vision into something other than what it is, Stanton unabashedly embraces its old school sensibilities, and emerges with a more timeless work as a result. B+