Review in a Hurry: Part western, part swashbuckler, and a huge part science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs' century-old story of a Confederate veteran turned warlord of Mars finally makes it to the big screen, after many aborted attempts over the years. Taylor Kitsch stars as the title character in a surprisingly intricate and violent space fantasy epic...from Disney!
Review in a Hurry: Disney's tone-deaf marketing of John Carter led many of us to fear the worst, from its curious omission of the word "Mars" to early looks at unfinished CG aliens who looked like cartoons (particularly frightening since the director, Andrew Stanton, came from cartoons).
Now, at the last minute, all the effects are finished and the TV spots are finally showing off some of the larger-scale setpieces. Is it too late? Let's hope not, because there's material here to sustain a solid franchise if the demand is there.
As in the Burroughs books, Carter is posited as an uncle of Burroughs himself (portrayed here by former Spy Kid Daryl Sabara), whose journal comes into the author's possession as a result of the former's apparent death.
Inside are stories of Barsoom, the Martians' word for their home planet, where red-tattooed human tribes (changed from red skin in the books, which presumably would come across too un-PC today) battle each other and the green-skinned Tharks, tall tusked aliens with four arms.
Into the midst of these conflicts come yet another race, the Therns, led by—who else—Mark Strong.
Seemingly possessed of mystical powers they seek to tilt the balance of power by introducing a new energy weapon into the hands of Sab Than (Dominic West), evil ruler of the red city of Zodanga. Meanwhile, in the blue city of Helium (Barsoom seemingly only has two cities on the entire planet, though any potential sequels will surely reveal otherwise), princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is on the verge of discovering this same energy weapon entirely without outside assistance.
Throw into the mix a Civil War veteran who finds the interstellar pathway via a mysterious cave of gold, and winds up among the Tharks...and you've got a whole mess of complications in play for the fate of the red planet.
Kitsch in costume may bring back uncomfortable flashbacks to Prince of Persia, but he's far better than that, delivering a female-friendly face and bod while still being tough enough for the guys. His appeal here owes a not-insignificant debt to his interactions with Willem Dafoe's alien chieftain Tars Tarkas, whose hardass ways and hidden heart of gold steal the show.
Director Stanton loves his environmentally pillaged, futuristic wastelands, but that's about all John Carter has in common with Wall-E. Parents be warned—the body count in this movie, which includes the Tharks shooting their own egg-hatchling babies, is massive. There's a cute alien dog that kids will love, but even it gets kicked around nastily before Carter comes to the rescue.
For those old enough to enjoy the books, however, the action is large-scale and awesome. The 3-D isn't essential to the viewing—it neither adds much depth nor throws things out at you, and feels like an afterthought. What does add depths are the suggestions of a larger mythology connecting Earth and Mars that seems like it might be fun to explore more of. Let's hope we get that chance.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Remember, Burroughs wrote these books a hundred years ago. If you're looking for strict scientific accuracy, this is so not your kind of film.