Packed to the brim with a vivid imagination and a good sense of humor, "John Carter" is a nice little B-movie dressed up with an A-movie budget, one in which you might find yourself grinning one minute and cringing the next. Like "Star Wars," "John Carter" gleefully leaves reality behind and brings us an epic space tale filled with the types of stories that can only be told with plenty of cheesy lines and gaping holes in logic. If it's a little overdone, and rest assured it is, that's a great deal better than a movie that lacks the enthusiasm to go the distance. You may walk out of the theater shaking your head and laughing at the absurdity, but you won't be able to say that director Andrew Stanton didn't close his eyes and just go for it.
It's safe to say that John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) lives a more interesting life than anyone else that you know. After being somewhat of a hero during the Civil War, Carter has turned into a renegade gold digger, a man with no loyalty at all other than to himself and the fortune that he desperately wants to stumble upon. A dimwitted rebel who never thinks before leaping into action, Carter's life seems to be spiraling out of control when he finds an odd, circular object in a remote cave somewhere in Arizona.
This isn't just any object, of course, as it has the magical power to transport people instantaneously all over the solar system. In just a matter of seconds, Carter is suddenly lying on his back on Mars, a barren desert that looks somewhat like the American southwest, though not exactly. While it appears like a background he's seen before, our hero finds that gravity is quite a bit different than what he's used to, and he has to learn how to walk all over again. But being on Mars has its perks too, as Carter is a quick study and learns that he has jumping ability that LeBron James would be envious of. Later, the movie explains that it's Carter's human bone density that gives him his new abilities, not that the explanation makes it any less silly when he starts bounding around.
With Earth in the rearview mirror and some new superhero abilities, Carter soon stumbles upon a fierce and primitive tribe of warriors called the Tharks, which look sort of like us only with four arms, green skin and ram-like horns. In just a matter of a few screen minutes, Carter goes from gold digging in Arizona to jumping as high as skyscrapers and sipping hallucinogens in a Martian halfway house. Ok, so "John Carter" isn't exactly going for subtlety.
It isn't long before Carter's spunk and bravery catches the eye of Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a wise but intense leader who instantly recognizes how special Carter is. The only thing missing is an enemy and a beautiful maiden to save, and both show up right on cue with Sab Than (Dominic West) and Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Drunk with power, Sab Than would love nothing more than to marry Dejah and align two great cities, giving him all the power of the entire planet. It helps that he has this blue thing he can strap to his arm and vaporize things that step into his path.
With all the pieces in place, Carter proves to be a seminal figure in an ongoing war between the various tribes of Mars, though that doesn't mean he doesn't have time to stop and fall in love with the beautiful Princess Dejah. It seems that Hollywood has finally gotten rid of the weakling female love interest who needs to be led around by the hand. This time, Dejah may look like she belongs in Maxim but she can wield a sword like Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill." It's not difficult to figure out why Carter is smitten.
But looking too closely at the characters or plot isn't required, and you would do better to not think on "John Carter" too hard. Surrounding the chaotic action sequences are a series of characters played by type-casted actors that don't have to do much besides stand there and recite a few forgettable lines. The only character that really stands out is Mark Strong, who is sufficiently creepy as Matai Shang, an immortal being who has a sinister way of manipulating the actions of the natives.
"John Carter" also seems to have swiped most of the cast from HBO's superb series "Rome," with Ciarán Hinds once again as the stern leader and James Purefoy back as his second in command after playing Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Unfortunately, Purefoy is much more interesting as the profane and endlessly despicable Marc Antony than he can be hamstrung by a PG-13 rating.
As "John Carter" hops about from one ludicrous fight scene to the next, we're left with a visual extravaganza and just enough bits of humor to keep it from going completely off the rails. I particularly liked when Carter rallies an army and storms the castle to save his lady, only to find that he's invading the wrong castle. Writer/director Andrew Stanton may not have found the pitch-perfect blend of action and humor he did with his superb animated works "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E," but he's still a natural filmmaker who is a good fit.
In the wrong hands, "John Carter" might have turned into the sequel to "Battlefield Earth" that never was, but writer/director Andrew Stanton fills the screen with enough energy and love for the material to just barely make it all work. This doesn't transcend a disjointed plot and some very flat dialog, but "John Carter" still works as a bit of mindless entertainment that never looks back once it breaks cleanly from reality. As silly as it is, "John Carter" still has more visual imagination than half the big-budget action movies that will come out this summer, and for that it's hard not to appreciate.
by RTT Staff Writer
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