Movie Review: “John Carter” – Salt of the Earth on Mars

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

“John Carter” contends that, to get in touch with your inner humanity, you must take an inexplicable trip to Mars, come to the aid of a beautiful princess and serve as a heroic soldier of fortune in a civil war among three alien warring groups. Well, isn’t that always the way? Maybe it’s why director Andrew Stanton confoundingly keeps his plot a secret.

Far too much of our time is spent trying to figure out the simplest story details. Too bad. Because, like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954), “John Carter” “coulda been somethin’,” a spectacular contender for some serious prizes, instead of an unnecessarily complicated, overlong also ran in the special effects sweepstakes.

But ah, what a fine spectacle of a CGI-enhanced epic if you can keep your growing impatience in check. Colorful, grand and even more so in the optional 3-D, the F/X vistas are expanded to complete razzle-dazzle proportions. Pardon the sacrilege, but Mr. Stanton has found the movie magic potion…Cecil B. DeMille in a silicon chip.

If only his storytelling matched his ability to awe the ocular nerves. The trickle style exposition, wherein several half storylines are sporadically presented, is as inconvenient as it is artless. This might be OK if “John Carter” were a mystery. But here it’s like Aesop not telling us until the final paragraph that the hare has a competitor in the tortoise.

Partially ameliorating the uncomfortable compulsion to ask your moviegoing partner questions you feel might sound stupid, like, “Is he just imagining this?’ is the establishment of two clear-cut protagonists of the eye candy variety. Handsome Taylor Kitsch stars as the title character. Purple-eyed Lynn Collins is Princess Dejah Thoris.

A whole bunch of good supporting players, difficult to recognize either because they’re in otherworldly costumes or merely the voices of animated personae, can challenge your spell check program. Characters like Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), leader of the quadruple-armed Tharks, and a nice sort once you get to know him. Some aren’t so nice.

Maybe it’s just my prejudice against Zodongans. But we don’t trust for a second Sab Than’s (Dominic West) intentions, even though he’s human-like. Head of the Zodongans, he’ll spare Barsoom’s (Mars) other group of “red people,” the peace-loving Heliumites, if their king, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), consents to let him wed the desirable Dejah.

Don’t worry. You can’t possibly give too much of this tale away without reciting a veritable encyclopedia, including a who’s who section of Barsoom’s denizens, both red and green. This is all adapted from the prolific pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although better known for his “Tarzan of the Apes,” he wrote several books in this series.

Relating once how he had come to authorship, Burroughs said, “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, [then] I could write stories just as rotten…. although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read….”

Thus, if the mood and texture of this saga seem like dime novel pulp, then the screenwriters have done the author proud, or ignominious, depending on your point of view. But if you can forget for a moment your degree in belles-lettres from Oxford, this is rousing and imaginative stuff. Sometimes, literary slumming can be a good respite.

Iconically formulaic, there is a treat in knowing this most closely resembles the genuine template that led to countless similar movie adventures, especially in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. You know the deal…an amalgam of biblical, historical and mythical yarns, woven with near humorous abandon and not a chronological care in its fictitious world.

Here the empires of Helium and Zondonga channel ancient Rome, replete with metal-adorned fashion: variations on what the well dressed gladiator will wear, with cues of Carnaby Street and a dab of Times Square bling. Plopped into this scene with scant explanation is Earthman John Carter, Army of the Confederacy, honorable discharge.

Don’t look for rhyme or reason. Suffice it to note he’s soon the cause célèbre among Tharks, the green Martians that really look gray. They don’t fly, whereas Heliumites and Zodongans do, in planes that float on light waves, which, I think, is the way we should go in the future. Abandoned oil company structures could be refitted for affordable housing.

Of course John doesn’t want to be a hero, until he meets Dejah, the kind of gal who could not only make your lazy son finish college, but maybe even rescue a civilization. If only Dejah had also met film editor Eric Zumbrunnen, surely she could have convinced him that a half hour less mumbo-jumbo would make us love “John Carter,” too.

“John Carter,” rated PG-13, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Andrew Stanton and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and Willem Dafoe. Running time: 132 minutes

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