'John Carter': A Welcome Sight for Fan Boys
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
If you are among the millions of filmgoers who was bitterly disappointed by "The Phantom Menace," you owe it to yourself, to your wounded psyche, and to your pleasure centers to check out "John Carter." No, it is not a "Star Wars" film; of course it's not. But it is set a relatively long time ago -- in Earth years, the late 19th century. And it is based on a classic albeit relatively obscure piece of classic not-quite-pulp science fiction, the novel "A Princess of Mars," by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. That work was one of the many that created the sci-fi adventure model/tradition that the first, good "Star Wars" films drew on and, um, rebooted for a new generation or two, or three. And while "The Phantom Menace" severely infantilized that very tradition, one of the triumphs of "John Carter" (a triumph that is already making those among us sometimes referred to as "fan boys" sigh in something like relief) is of tone. To say that this film does epic not-quite-pulp sci-fi adventure "right" is to imply ethical questions that this review has neither the space nor the inclination to go into. So let's instead say that "John Carter" does it properly. And, more importantly, entertainingly.
The opening of the film, directed by longtime Pixar maestro Andrew Stanton (this is the "Finding Nemo" director's first live-action feature) and scripted by Stanton, Mark Andrews and genu-wine pedigreed literary feller Michael Chabon, is, I admit, more daunting than promising. A narrator updates the audience on the sitch on the red planet, which, she explains, is not really named Mars, at least not by the natives, but rather is named Barsoom, and inhabited by a race called X and another race called Y, and there's this war, and this blue-ray power and ... a disinterested adult may find himself or herself doing an eye roll and muttering, "Great, another damn encyclopedia of a sci-fi mythology to learn." What then follows is something like a double frame story, beginning on Earth with a harried John Carter summoning his nephew, young writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, to his estate. But Edgar arrives too late, and instead of consulting his mysteriously wealthy uncle, reads his will ... and his journal, which tells of An Unbelievable Adventure Carter had some two decades prior to that when, prospecting for gold in Arizona in the wake of the Civil war, he found himself transported to Mars, where ...
Well, we'll get to that in a second. There's been a lot of chatter on the Internet about the marketing of this very big-budgeted epic, and its box-office chances, and its actual value. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is that, despite all the money made by the "Star Wars" prequels, they've kind of muddied the waters for their genre, quality-wise. And "John Carter" itself, being of the tradition, seems to have all manner of opportunities to turn a corner and descend into absolute suckage. For instance, there's a Martian race made up of super-tall, multi-armed, skinny green giants with bulbous heads and tusks and names like "Tars Tarkas." I know what you're thinking, right? Jar Jar Binks, or as the writer Todd Hanson put it in an essay I commissioned some time ago, "He Who Must Not Be Named." Only: no. The Tharks, as these CGI-ed creatures are called, are portrayed with what we might call integrity, even credibility (they're voiced by some first-rate actors, among them Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton).
As the title of the Burroughs source novel indicates, there's a princess in this story, of Mars' humanoid race, and her name is Dejah Thoris, and, yes, we've seen where that can lead, both good and bad. Again, unless you're completely allergic to the circumstantial pomp inherent in straight-faced genre exercises, this is done well, with actress Lynn Collins, who's been around for a while without leaving much of an impression, finally making her mark. On Mars, Carter even picks up a cute pet, kind of a giant Red Bull-infused dog, and even this element is not only not insufferable; it works. The action, the planetscapes and all the other elements of eye-poppery that the genre kind of exists for are all first-rate.
As is the hero. Taylor Kitsch is the kind of name that snarky critics kind of live for, and I guess it's a strong indication of the actor's confidence that he never deigned to take a stage name. He's already beloved among fans of the TV series "Friday Night Lights," and he really gets the job done here playing a reluctant hero with a lot of hurt in his past. Yeah, his character certainly combines elements of Luke You-Know-Who and You-Know-Who Solo, but his John Carter is no retread and the feisty rebel version of him we see in Arizona wouldn't be out of place in a Coen Brothers picture.
By the end of the adventure, even the initially befuddling double-frame story pays off, in spades. The movie ends on a deeply satisfying note that doesn't demand a sequel ... but it's likely you'll want one anyway. For me, this is the first movie of its kind in a very long time that I'd willingly sit through a second or even third time.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.