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Given that it’s based on a pioneering work of science fiction, there can be little surprise that John Carter feels like a hodgepodge of any number of familiar elements, some of which were no doubt borrowed by others from Edgar Rice Burroughs and brought full circle here. This Disney extravaganza is a rather charming pastiche, if perhaps not one with sufficient excitement and razzle-dazzle to justify the reported $250 million production budget. Neither classic nor fiasco, the film will likely delight sci-fi geeks most of all, but there’s enough here for general Disney audiences as well to generate solid box office worldwide.
If Avatar had never existed, it’s possible that John Carter would have seemed like more of a genre breakthrough, given the premise of a distant planet penetrated by an Earthling who begins an interplanetary romance and is ultimately accepted into the alien culture (Mars here even has a huge arboreal structure at the heart of things). But echoes resonate from many other sources as well: What came first, the Jedi of Star Wars or the Jeddak leaders here? Was Taylor Kitsch‘s buff loincloth look inspired by how good Charlton Heston looked similarly attired in Planet of the Apes? Doesn’t John Carter’s background consist of one part Outlaw Josey Wales and one part Indiana Jones? And doesn’t the specter of the ancient Greeks noticeably hover over the everlasting battles being fought among the various neighbors?
The Princess of Mars, the first work by Burroughs ever published, began being serialized in 1912 and was issued as a novel six years later. Neatly, the author has been brought onstage here in an 1881 framing device, as the young nephew of the just-deceased adventurer John Carter who has been called to New York City to be shown a journal the dead man has intended for Edgar’s eyes only.
As in Burroughs’ story, Carter is a Confederate soldier drawn west after the Civil War by the lure of gold. But no sooner does he find it than he happens upon a cave massively feared by the Indians, one which serves as a portal to a place that looks very much like the American West but is, in fact, the desert-like Barsoom, that fourth planet in the solar system that has often been fantasized about as a possible home to some form of life.
The first species Carter encounters when he awakens are just-hatching critters that grow up to become Tharks: thin, tusked, six-limbed, greenish-skinned creatures that are quite jumpy about being in year one thousand of their struggle with the nasties from Zodanga, whose arrogant prince, Sab Than (Dominic West), has just acquired a new, lethal amulet. The Zodangans hover about aboard giant airborne craft that look like Star Wars by way of Baron von Munchausen and are accompanied by three holy men, most notably the all-knowing and shape-shifting Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
Even though they’re allied with the aristocrats of Helium — whose elite, including the Jeddak (Ciaran Hinds) and his daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), are kitted out with British accents, chintzy costumes and the occasional bad wig reminiscent of a 1950s Ray Harryhausen adventure — the poor Tharks desperately need more help if they hope to survive. When they see how Carter can leap tall rocks in a single bound, by virtue of the thin atmospheric conditions, they decide he’s their man.
It would take repeated viewings to determine how many times Carter is captured and then escapes in the story line devised by screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon. More a series of incidents than a gracefully composed drama of rhythmic arcs and elegantly defined acts, the film finally settles its principal attention on the dilemma of Princess Dejah, whose high-minded scientific orientation (reminiscent of that of Rachel Weisz‘s Hypatia in Agora) contributes to her disinclination to play obedient daughter and marry the venal Sab Than for political reasons, as her father requests. With Kitsch and Collins having shared a previous life together in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, their characters here bask in the sight of two moons as they compare notes on the structure of the solar system and, in an appealingly unconventional, unsentimental way, get together.
Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, co-directed A Bug’s Life and had a hand in writing all three Toy Story features, here follows Brad Bird by three months in moving from Pixar animated eminence to live-action fare. Although the result is quite a mishmash, dramatic coherence prevails over visual flair; the colors, skin tones, image sharpness and cohesion of diverse pictorial elements are less than stellar, though the 3D is effective, with comparatively little brightness sacrificed by donning glasses. (The film was reviewed in Imax 3D.) For a Pixar graduate piece, humor is notably lacking.
Long-haired, bearded and skimpily clad through most of it, Kitsch fills the action-hero bill, neither more nor less. With raven-black hair framing lagoon-blue eyes, Collins, who was an arrestingly unconventional Portia in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino eight years ago, also was a far from predictable Hollywood-style choice here, so sharply does she attack a standard-issue part. In support, Strong and James Purefoy, the latter as a lightly impudent factotum from Helium, supply the most color.
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