Review: ‘John Carter’ does pulp science-fiction right and on a grand scale

It still seems surreal to me that there really is a mega-budget bigscreen live-action film based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories about Barsoom and John Carter, since as long as I’ve been paying attention to Hollywood, and even well before that, there has always been a John Carter movie in some stage of development.

The good news is that Andrew Stanton, one of the cornerstones of Pixar and the director of both “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” has made a nimble jump to live-action, and much of his movie is imbued with a wild, thrilling pulp energy and a genuine sense of wonder.  It is a charming science-fiction adventure that makes no apologies for what it is.  This is the sort of film where there is talk of Jeddaks and Tharks and Barsoom and you’re supposed to just pick it up and understand, and where we accept that Mars doesn’t look a thing like modern science tells us it does because that’s the conceit.  It will be interesting to see who gets hung up on the difference between reality and this film’s conception of Mars, because there’s nothing about this that plays as “real,” but there is such a strong sense of voice that I think Stanton sells the reality beautifully.

There are a few things I wasn’t crazy about, and unfortunately, one of my biggest complaints is that I don’t buy Taylor Kitsch as a Civil War veteran.  I think once he gets to Barsoom (which is what the natives all call Mars), he starts to loosen up and he fits better into the tone of what Stanton is doing, but the opening scenes on Earth just don’t convince me that this is a guy who just fought on the losing side during one of the bloodiest wars in our history.  He’s supposed to be haunted by that loss, which is one of the reasons he’s able to leave his home world behind so readily.  Kitsch is a very modern presence, and that lack of period authenticity is one of the few true false notes the film plays.

I also think the film is a little bit too focused on the notion of a franchise instead of just telling one story very well.  Not completely, and I’d honestly like to see sequels to this, but there’s a sense at the end of the film that the larger story is only partially told, and for audiences who don’t know the source material, it may be frustrating.  

Still, those are minor complaints considering how much the film gets right.  Stanton and his entire production team deserve kudos for the way they’ve brought Barsoom and its peoples to life, and the film has a great sense of fun throughout.  Using several of the books to draw material together for this first film was smart, because it allowed Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon to craft a strong, simple spine to the story while also laying out the political and social realities of this alien culture.  Considering so many of the characters in the film are created in the computer, one of Stanton’s strengths is the way he directs and shoots them as characters, not as effects.  The Tharks, led here by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), are compelling creations, and the performance work by both the actors and the animators involved is excellent.  By a few scenes into their time onscreen, I stopped thinking about the technical trick involved in bringing them to life and simply accepted them as real.

As much as people are going to tie themselves in knots to compare this to “Star Wars” and “Avatar,” two films that drew obvious inspiration from the Barsoom stories, the film that casts the biggest shadow over the way Stanton brought this to life is, oddly, “Lawrence Of Arabia.”  It’s not what I would have expected, but it makes sense when you see how it plays out.  Stanton’s film deals with a man who finds his destiny in a race and culture where he is a complete outsider, and Carter’s gradual awakening to his true nature is charted nicely.

My favorite thing about the movie is the performance by Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and I think she’s great playing a strong, smart, capable equal to Carter, a woman worth the journey he takes.  She is also the focus of the attentions of Sab Than, played by Dominic West, who seems to relish his role as a total bastard looking to take over all of Barsoom.  Collins should stir unexpected feelings in a whole generation of 13-year-olds, but she’s not just ravishing.  She’s also got a real spirit and she handles herself with aplomb in all of the film’s most physical sequences.  I’ve said before that one of the things that matters most in a film like this is that the cast needs to sell the reality.  They need to feel like they are really of the world.  And with Collins, she makes even the most unwieldy exposition feel absolutely natural.  She is comfortable in the skin of Dejah Thoris, and that goes a long way towards making us believe.

It also helps that Stanton’s got a great sense of humor and timing.  There’s a sequence early on involving Bryan Cranston that shows just how strong his sense of timing is, and in numerous sequences, it’s the little moments that push something over the top.  Stanton takes Woola, the bizarre alien dog creature, and makes him into a winning character, an organic presence.  He handles sky battles and arena fights and epic civil wars with ease, and in each case, he finds the human moments or the subtle visual punchline or the action beat or the exact right edit.  Even in the film’s closing moments, there’s a simple cut to an actor’s face at the right moment that packs an emotional punch I didn’t expect.

Special mention must be made of Michael Giacchino’s score, which is rousing and epic and memorable, and he deserves credit for helping Stanton pin down the tone of the story.  I liked the way the bookends worked, and while he’s not in much of the film, Daryl Sabara’s Edgar Rice Burroughs is a welcome addition to the story.  There’s great work here from Samantha Morton and Polly Walker and Thomas Haden Church, and Mark Strong gives another strong otherworldly performance as Matai Shang, who holds the key to much of what happens in the film and who suggests a larger game in motion.

“John Carter” may be hobbled by one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent memory, but in that way, it is the opposite of many of Disney’s latest event films.  I thought they did a great job selling both “TRON: Legacy” and “Alice In Wonderland,” but I hated the movies themselves.  This time, I think they’ve fumbled the sales pitch completely, but if you’re willing to look past that and go the theater, “John Carter” is transporting in exactly the way I want my escapism to be.  Richly imagined, robustly performed, and directed with the evident enthusiasm of someone who’s been dreaming about Barsoom his whole life, “John Carter” is a gem.

“John Carter” opens in theaters everywhere on March 9, 2012.