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|Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.|
I approach big sci-fi adventure epics with a degree of scepticism because of the liberties they tend to take with logic and plausibility. The degree to which they go in this regard depends heavily on the talent and integrity of those doing the film in question. What this one proves is that it's not a matter of how much is at stake but, with this production budget, you'd think someone in the creative chain might have detected that there was too much dramatic dithering in the screenplay. Fortunately, entertainment factors survive.
Good for Carter... until he makes a bad move and finds himself tele-transported to the planet we know of as Mars which he will soon learn is Barsoom to these new natives that no earthling has ever seen or known about. The occurrence is a conceptual stretch but okay, it informs us that we're on a fantasy journey.
He lands on his backside and, as he tries to stand up, he realizes he has no control of his movements. He stumbles and falls, lurching forward and back. When he gains control by adapting to the lower gravity of the planet (some say it's because of the thin atmosphere but that makes no sense), he discovers an ability to jump, a little at first, then to great heights. The novelty of it stuns the Barsoomians who witness his antics. They come to study him and he is immediately on defense against the strange-looking squad that shows up and we get a first look at Carter's athleticism. Finally, one native comes forward and approaches in friendship. There's a language barrier but that's soon erased so that we don't have to spend the next two hours reading subtitles.
The nomadic tribes of Barsoom who people the vast desert landscape, who here are called Tharks, tusked, four-armed, twelve-foot creatures, seem at first gangly and awkward. But they are powerful and adapted to the war with their enemies, the Zodangans, that has raged for centuries. My immediate reaction to this rendering of Barsoomian natives was that they couldn't have been dreamed up were it not for the Na'vi of Pandora ("Avatar") but a little research shows that it's more or less true to the "Green Martian" from the Barsoomian tales of futurist Edgar Rice Burroughs from which this movie is adapted. His "John Carter of Mars" is the eleventh and last of Burrough's Martian book series began in 1912.
The Tharks are the underdogs in the ongoing contest against the evil Zodangans who are weaponized with massive airships (see "Aliens and Cowboys") and led by evil warlord Sab Than (Dominic West). As if that weren't enough, the Dark Lord Voldemort character (see "Harry Potter"), Matai Shang (Mark Strong), is a shape shifting immortal who is pretty much untouchable as he and his magical gifts spur Sab Than on in the decimation of the Thark population should he digress from that mission.
Less dedicated to it but wishing to survive is Jeddak Tardos Mors (lethargic Ciaran Hinds), the ruler of yet another semi-sovereign nation, Helium. And here we introduce the person around whom much revolves in the prevailing circumstances. The survival of Helium depends now on Mors convincing his gorgeous daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, a great beauty on any planet), to accept Sab Than's offer in marriage. She loathes and despises the tyrant, and the difficulty for her increases tenfold when she meets and fights side-by-side, the newcomer to the planet, John Carter. But her reticence to accept a political alliance and saver her people weigh heavily and provide the central issue that carries the drama forward against the background of the story's emotional heartbeat.
Trouble is, it's all so overdone without a consistent train of thought. While the Thark/Zodangan war has been going on endlessly, so is the film's unfocused excess in trying to capture too much of it and winding up with episodes that overlap and repeat themselves. It's almost as though each of the three screenwriters involved turned in their versions and, more because of political issues than strictly creative ones, there was an attempt to include all the material without an overriding eye, which should have been director Andres Stanton's. After all, he's responsible for writing and directing "Wall-E," "Finding Nemo" and writing "Toy Story 3." The guy has credits any writer would dream of.
Nothing wrong, on the other hand, with his casting. Not that Kitsch is so wonderful -- just that he fulfills the role requirements as admirably as, say, Sam Worthington ("Wrath of the Titans,") Chris Hemsworth ("Thor") or Channing Tatum ("The Son of No One") might have done. Eye candy for the ladies, all.
On the other side of the gender divide there's Carter's romantic interest, Lynn Collins. As ravishing actresses go, there's none more enticing and worthy of such gloriously noble garments that have ever graced a majestic female body. (Kudos to costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo). She embodies the subject of Burroughs' first book in his Barsoomian series, "A Princess of Mars" with exquisite bearing and combat athleticism. Collins continues to be, for me, one of the undervalued beauties of international cinema.
The cast also includes, to great advantage, the splendid talents of Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus) and James Purefoy (Kantos Kan).
I will always give promising sci-fi adventure epics a look because of the vast conceptual canvas such fantasy films offer and can't say this one is entirely devoide of a few new ideas and superb visuals that almost makes it worth the price of admission. There's even a touch of wry and understated humor. But, for the $250 MILLION laid out for it, "John Carter" isn't likely to easily pull in enough patrons to cover the extravagance. Their problem, not mine, but it's sad to see something so invested and with the trappings of large scale entertainment come off so poorly when one more disciplined rewrite might have made it a large scale winner. Do I hear Paul Simon's "Rewrite" playing in the background?
~~ Jules Brenner