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Review: John Carter

Wall-E director Andrew Stanton directs one of the best sci-fi fantasy films in many, many years.

 

The world needs more films like John Carter. Andrew Stanton’s first (mostly) live-action motion picture, after Pixar successes like Finding Nemo and Wall-E, is a truly remarkable science-fiction fantasy that captures the wonder of the human imagination with an epic flare that only a classic Hollywood epic can muster. I can’t wait to see it in 2D.

That’s not a backhanded compliment. The 3D in John Carter is among the best I’ve seen in theaters. Okay, technically that is a backhanded compliment. The immersive storytelling at play in John Carter is only undone by the gimmicky technique that forces the audience to seek information within the frame rather than absorb the frame in its entirety, and as such prevents us from… you know, getting immersed. But even that can’t hobble a film brimming with imagination, character and good humor. It’s the kind of balance only rarely achieved by the likes of Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones, films to which John Carter is worthy of comparison even though it comes up a little short in their company.

Taylor Kitsch, whom I shall respect by ignoring his appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (wait… crap!), plays the titular John Carter, a former Confederate soldier in the late 19th Century. He’s on the run from his own army after they attempt to draft him back into service. Carter only believes in waging war on warmongering, and refuses to be dragged back into any violent conflict outside of his personal sphere of influence despite his obvious talent for brutality. An unusual series of events teleports him all the way to Barsoom – or as we like to call it, Mars – where he discovers that the trip has given him physical abilities beyond normal men, even the ones on this strange new planet. Superhuman strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound: it seems a little simplistic after a century of supermen, but it’s important to remember – as the publicity materials have constantly (and unnecessarily) reminded me – that John Carter precedes them all.

Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter way back in 1917, and while it was far from the first science-fiction novel it did help codify the fantastical hero fantasy we’ve all come to know and love, and it arguably influenced – at least indirectly – most science-fiction fantasies to this day. As such, jaded modern fans of the genre may find Andrew Stanton’s John Carter somewhat retro in its approach to the material, but the filmmakers are clearly going after something more timeless than nostalgic. Some of the characters are a little thin – a problem endemic to this kind of material, it seems – but are properly motivated and imbued with inner conflict that drives the story to fun directions. John Carter gets swept up in a Martian war between several rival nations who see him as either a savior or a threat, and is forced to set aside his reservations in order to save the day, get the girl (a thinly-written but otherwise charismatic Lynn Collins) and return home to Earth.

If there’s a serious quibble (beyond the forgivably plot hole-laden final minutes), it’s that much of the middle act of John Carter gets so wrapped up in the drama that it forgets to amuse, a pattern unexpectedly broken by the normally joyless James Purefoy in the midst of a whimsical jailbreak. The film soon gets back on track, marrying gloriously broad action sequences with familiar but superb dramatic beats that keep the stakes high and the characters bounding – literally – from one awesome set piece to the next. Yet even the troublesome part is punctuated by one of the most memorable action sequences in years, in which Carter takes on an entire army singlehanded, which Stanton contrasts with an emotionally charged flashback with tragic revelations, unexpectedly presented. And to say that Michael Giacchino went completely nuts writing an iconic score for that moment, and the rest of John Carter, is putting it mildly.

What makes John Carter so spectacular isn’t its classical sci-fi roots, it’s the obvious joy on the part of Stanton and his gargantuan crew in bringing such a beloved fantasy to the screen. Nobody rolled their eyes at the central conceits, no matter how corny they might seem to unappreciative and irony-addicted modern audiences, and every character comes to the screen with an energy and level of class rarely seen in this kind of material. If you’ve been turned off by the disappointing marketing campaign for John Carter – i.e. everyone I’ve ever met – take heed: John Carter is one of the best sci-fi fantasy films in a long, long time.