Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights gets his ass to Mars (or “Barsoom,” rather) in Disney’s lavish but not quite full-blown gonzo adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars. For all of the mad marketing schemes over the past couple of months, you’re almost obliged to see this movie no matter how it actually turned out; luckily, you’re in for a rather entertaining film, if not quite the awe-inspiring one it’s trying to be (and, at that price tag, it kind of should’ve been).
Taylor Kitsch, a good-lookin’ guy and a not-bad actor, plays the titular hero, a Civil War vet haunted by the death of his wife and child and on the run from Confederate stragglers in 1868 Arizona. He’s soon transported via a magical cave (or something — it’s best to just take whatever the movie throws at you) to a Martian desert, where the red planet’s lighter gravity allows him to jump really high and long (the Permian Panthers would’ve done wonders on this playing field). This is not a place for just amusingly leaping tall buildings in a single bound, though; Barsoom (as the natives call it) is a planet torn asunder by its own civil war, one in which the eight-foot-tall, four-armed green Tharks (led by Tars Tarkas, voiced by Willem Dafoe) have joined forces with the residents of Helium (the most comely being the beautiful Dejah Thoris, an instant love interest played by Kitsch’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine pal Lynn Collins) in their battle against the humanoids of Zodanga, led by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West), who is advised/manipulated by the shapeshifting Matai Shang (Mark Strong, fulfilling his obligation to appear in every other movie). The Tharks are getting their (large) asses kicked; might this grizzled warrior from Earth be the one who can turn the tide?
See, I told you it’s best to just take whatever the movie throws at you. Director Andrew Stanton and his co-screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon either assume you’ve read a few John Carter serials, or they just don’t care — either way, it’s a bit refreshing to see a film so brazenly confident about its own convoluted mythology, one that either trusts the audience to keep up or knows that the details ultimately don’t really matter (or a little of both). There’s a lot of fascinating (and sometimes rather goofy) political and sociological details going on here (who knew living and working on Mars could be so complicated?), but they’re ultimately there to just fill in the gaps between scenes involving Kitsch-Collins flirting and the chaotic battle scenes.
Between making a huge spectacle-driven extravaganza and perhaps tipping the scales of the American economy, Disney can always be counted on to choose the former, which means John Carter definitely looks amazing. Like his Pixar colleague, Brad Bird, who also recently made his live-action debut with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, director Andrew Stanton can’t quite direct real flesh and blood actors just yet; there’s an enthusiasm to the performances, but also a strange awkwardness (the same could be said for the ensemble of Ghost Protocol). However, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E definitely knows where his strengths are and gives much of his attention to the most fully realized character in the film: Woola, a six-legged dog-like creature that becomes Carter’s trusty, well, dog (or “calot,” rather, but whatever).
John Carter isn’t quite the work of sheer lunacy that I was kind of hoping for, but how could it be, really? The Disney of today will never completely let its hair down and deliver something so insanely wacko as, say, David Lynch’s Dune or even its own ill-advised ’70s relic, The Black Hole. However, it’s a playful and almost confrontational cinematic beast, one that’s determined to make everyone realize that, even though all of these characters and situations and action set pieces seem very familiar (to anyone who’s seen Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or Star Wars or Avatar or anything else inspired by Burroughs’ work), they pretty much came first. John Carter was a pioneer of the sci-fi action-adventure genre, a once-fresh bit of pulp storytelling that must now fight tooth and nail to seem relevant and “new” again even though it’s been the source of tons of copycats, ripoffs and “homages” over the past hundred years. It doesn’t quite succeed, but in true Disney fashion, it certainly puts on a good show in trying.