2012-03-09

John Carter – Recapturing The Fun Of Star Wars

by Yo Snyder

It’s easy to look at the previews of John Carter and think, “Man, that looks just like Star Wars with a little Avatar.”
While it’s true that the film may feel like a derivative of those other
sci-fi epics, the fact is Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the John Carter of
Mars books long before there was a galaxy far, far away or a bunch of
tall, blue aliens on floating rocks. Still, those other movies came
first, and so John Carter will forever live in their shadow. Setting that aside for the moment, the fact remains that John Carter
is a really fun sci-fi romp. If the idea of a cowboy from Earth
crossing swords with aliens and Roman soldier wannabes on Mars doesn’t
sound like a good time to you, then by all means, skip this film. But if
you can’t help but think that would be kind of fun, well, you won’t be
disappointed by John Carter.

The biggest problem with the
film is that it almost tries to tell too much story. Indeed, the final
15 or 20 minutes could have been a movie of its own. There’s a lot to
absorb in being introduced to the many new concepts and characters and
factions and mythology that John Carter brings. Still, Andrew Stanton (Of Wall-E and Finding Nemo
fame) never lets the expansive amounts of exposition get out hand. He
also doesn’t rush things, which allows the various characters to
breathe. As you would expect of anyone coming out of Pixar, this is
where the strength of the film lies. Despite the fact that there’s a lot
to explain and plenty of action, it’s never at the expense of
developing a character. If anything, it might have been better for this
film to be broken down into two parts to allow these characters even
more room to develop as they all have interesting stories that are
necessarily truncated to keep the movie’s pace from getting bogged down.

I never watched Friday Night Lights, so Taylor Kitsch was
a complete unknown to me. Considering how much his character has been
through, I don’t think he was quite grizzled enough for me to fully buy
his back-story. Indeed, I often had a hard time reconciling his
impressively gruff voice with his boyish good looks. He sounds tougher
than he looks, but handles the action scenes just fine. He seems to be a
capable leading man and did a quality job with role of John Carter.
Willem Dafoe, however, must have had a lot of fun with his part as the
Martian leader Tars Tarkas, or at least it seems like he did. While not
quite a performance on the same level of Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes,
it’s still a solid performance for something that was motion captured
while the guy was on stilts (that must have been tough). Dafoe’s
character is a lot of fun and has one of the most interesting story
arcs; one I wish there was more time for it. The rest of the cast also
handles themselves ably, with Mark Strong playing a suitably nebulous
villain and Lynn Collins providing more than just eye candy and love
interest with her portrayal of Princess Dejah as a strong, determined,
smart woman who just want what’s best for her people but struggles with
how much that may cost her personally (who wouldn’t?).

One of the key character moments is when Princess Dejah
tells John Carter that the reason she ran away was because she was
looking for another way to help save her people, and she found John
Carter. Now Carter doesn’t want to have any part of fighting for a cause
or to save a people, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t qualified for the
job. In fact, seeing as how Mars’ lighter gravity gave him greater
agility, strength and the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single
bound”, he was uniquely qualified to be the way the Princess was
searching for. In a way, we’re all like Princess Dejah. We live in a
culture and society right now that’s desperate for change, for
“something different”; in short, we’re looking for another way. Jesus
Christ said quite plainly that he is THE way (John 14:6), and yet so
many aren’t satisfied with that. They want some other way, any
other way than Jesus Christ. Yet, just because people reject him doesn’t
mean Jesus isn’t qualified to do the job. In fact, because of his death
and resurrection and the fact that he is God in the flesh, he is
uniquely qualified to be that way, that change, that “something
different” people are looking for. Plus, the simple fact remains there
is no other way. We can go our own way, or we can go THE way; those are
our only choices. But instead of being upset over the limited choices we
have, shouldn’t we be glad there is a choice?

However,
with a sci-fi epic like this, one doesn’t just want great characters and
dialogue with deeper, more profound meaning; one wants spectacle. Well,
there’s plenty of that in John Carter. In fact, one of the best,
most moving scenes is when John Carter faces off against an army all on
his own. The battle scene is inter-cut with flashbacks to some of his
own tragic back-story, and it makes for a powerful and exciting moment
in the film. The action is big and fun, with a Star Wars flair for some
great banter among the characters to keep things light and entertaining.
Plus, the movie does a good job with the sci-fi elements, making the
world believable and the tech seem almost plausible. It doesn’t get
bogged down with in-depth, technical explanations for how things work
which can often plague some sci-fi films. 

Much like Star Wars and to some extent Avatar,
the films it will inevitably be compared to, John Carter is just
flat-out a lot of fun. It has exciting action involving some enjoyable
characters who are witty and funny but also experience some very moving,
personal moments. The pace is brisk and the there probably too much
story packed into this one film, but I still found it to be a very
satisfying experience. The 3D looked nice, not quite on par with Avatar,
but still good, yet I just don’t know that it adds enough to the
experience to justify the extra expense. Still, if you do see it in 3D, I
think you’ll find it enjoyable. One question I’ve been repeatedly asked
about this movie is what age is appropriate for the film; as I imagine
it does appeal to that younger Star Wars crowd. Well, I think it
compares pretty well with Return of the Jedi. If you’re okay with a younger one seeing the scary Rancor and Leia’s slave outfit, there’s nothing in John Carter that exceeds that.

Will
this movie successfully transition into a franchise? I’m not sure. It’s
tough sell, especially in the shadow of those other sci-fi epics. It
has an untested star, and it’s set on Mars, which for some reason, seems
to doom movies to failure. (In fact, after the tremendous bomb known as
Mars Needs Moms, this films title was changed from John Carter of Mars to just John Carter).
I hope it gets to be the trilogy that Stanton wants it to be. I’d enjoy
spending more time in this world with these characters, and there’s
certainly plenty that went unexplored. Most importantly of all, I had a
really good time. It reminded me a bit of the giddy thrill I had when I
first saw Star Wars as a ten-year-old kid, and it’s always a joy to experience that kind of simple fun at the movies.