John Carter is a good old fashioned action/adventure romp. It takes its time developing, provides plenty of material for a myriad of sequels, and stands up to the scrutiny of today’s preoccupied post-modern film fan. In the hands of Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (responsible for the future shock satisfaction of Wall-E), it glides into place as one of the best big screen adaptations of any source material ever. Granted, there are parts that may not flow as effortlessly as others, and one imagines a longer, more powerful cut sitting around waiting for the inevitable special edition DVD, but for what is up on the screen, Disney should be proud. They’ve invested a lot of capital in bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal character to life, and their backing is about to be very well rewarded indeed.
A story starts with the title adventurer (Taylor Kitsch) MIA and his beloved nephew (Daryl Sabara) reading his journals. Within its pages, we learn of Carter’s run-in with a Civil War officer (Bryan Cranston) and the ambush by local Native Americans which led him to the ‘cave of the spider’ and a miraculous trip across the cosmos. Ending up on the angry red planet — which the natives call “Barsoom” — Carter find himself in the middle of a war between extraterrestrial humanoids from the kingdoms of Helium and Zodanga. The former is led by Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) and his gorgeous daughter, the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). The latter is fronted by the despotic Sab Than (Dominic West).
With the help of the ethereal overseers known as Holy Therns and their leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the Zodangans have access to The Ninth Ray, the most deadly power source imaginable. Sab Than intends to use it against Helium — that is, unless, Dejah Thoris agrees to marry him. She refuses, and runs away. In the meantime, Carter is introduced to the six-limbed Martian inhabitants and their ruler Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). After learning of their struggles at the hands of the others, he agrees to use his newly discovered ‘earthling’ powers (strength, jumping ability) to restore a sense of balance and order.
From the moment actor Taylor Kitsch dons his proto-peplum costume and leaps across the boundaries of alien space, John Carter fulfills its intended promise. Up until that seminal moment, we get lots of backstory and a bit too much melancholy and musing. We can’t wait for our sullen soldier to turn into an intergalactic warrior, and when he does, it’s like a lightning strike hitting the narrative. Suddenly, Stanton’s approach pays off, the carefully laid foundation finding more and more favor with the various plot permutations and demands. By the time Carter must choose between going home and saving Dejah Thoris, we are rooting for him to make the right decision.
Indeed, John Carter is that rarity in today’s hyperactive slam bang film arena — a true thinking man’s thrill ride. It makes up for its lack of practiced pyrotechnics with a stealthy combination of head and heart. This is an experience that sneaks up on you, that keeps you waiting for the inevitable payoff before producing it, unexpectedly. The acting is uniformly good — and even better, rife for further exploration in future installments. Stanton establishes his own unique universe (by way of Burroughs) and then lets his capable cast — as well as some amazing CG work — fill in the blanks.
The result is a rousing spectacle that stays grounded. It’s the kind of epic that keeps you simultaneously at the edge or your seat and solidly settled back in your chair. You’ll be cheering , and now that this origin story is out of the way, eager for more. Much more.