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'John Carter', A Reach of a Film But a Sci-Fi Treat

Published: Friday, March 9, 2012

Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 17:03


John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Starry Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe

Rated PG-13

Opens Friday


Grade: B


“John Carter” will ask audiences to ignore the science in favor of the fiction. Those that can do so will enjoy an entertaining flick comparable to the sci-fi greats. The movie is based on the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars” and details the life of confederate soldier John Carter, here played by “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch.

A sci-fi happenstance ends with Carter being teleported to Mars. Because of the scientific notions of the time, Burroughs’ Mars has oxygen and various humanoid races. Mars’s lower gravity gives Earth man Carter increased strength and agility. Once on Mars, Carter becomes embroiled in a planet-sized conflict, falls for the aforementioned princess and tries to discover how he ended up on Mars in the first place.

The biggest problem for “John Carter” is the antiquated science. It’s easier for audiences to accept a distant planet like Pandora, populated with blue cat people than accept life on Mars, which has been so definitively declared impossible.

Despite its 2012 sheen and special effects, John Carter feels old school. These sci-fi concepts have been done before: the princess in distress, played by Lynn Collins (“Wolverine”), and the soldier who sides with the aliens and finds increased strength on another world. Here, the surprise is that “A Princess of Mars” predates “Star Wars,” “Avatar”and Superman by decades.

Burroughs’ John Carter series has influenced everyone from Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,”to characters like Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds and Flash Gordon. Here, everything old is truly new again.

As with every book adaptation, though, “John Carter”gets some things right and fails on others, while adding new depth but excising whole storylines for the sake of a two-hour runtime. Fortunately, the soul of the book is where the movie succeeds. “John Carter”is a fun, swashbuckling adventure movie. It’s light-hearted pulp full of sword fights and laser guns.

If anything, the attempts to darken the hero a bit with a tragic background is out of place. The fact that Carter would declare war on five different civilizations to save the princess is dark enough. The modern idea that tragedy equates to reality and quality is a trend that needs to die. Padding the runtime by making Carter a reluctant hero instead of the hero he is in the books also adds needless subplots.

On the flip side, making princess Dejah Thoris (Collins) a capable fighter and strong-willed outshines the book’s princess, who is simply the damsel in distress. Really, both Kitsch and Collins acquit themselves of “X-men Origins: Wolverine.” Kitsch’s smart ass southern gentleman is the perfect match for Collins’ serious “we have to save everyone” personality. There’s a believable chemistry.

The big problem here is simply the lack of epic storytelling. An entire planet’s worth of trouble is laid at John Carter’s feet but the film loses focus on needless side trips that aren’t in the book.

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