Thursday, June 28, 2012

Culture Shock 06.28.12: Time to give 'John Carter' a second chance

The intrigue and incompetence that led to Disney's "John Carter" becoming one of the biggest flops in movie history would probably make for an interesting movie. Perhaps a screwball comedy.

Even the poster used to promote the movie is dull.
It really takes a concerted effort to so mishandle a film that it joins the ranks of "Heaven's Gate," "Ishtar" and "Howard the Duck."

Especially when, unlike those films, "John Carter" is actually pretty good, and definitely worth reappraisal now that it's available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Everything from the title — not "John Carter of Mars" or, better still, "John Carter and a Princess of Mars," but just plain "John Carter" — to the lackluster, inept marketing campaign made "John Carter" out to be a dreary bore.

But "John Carter" isn't boring. It's just "old school." It's an old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure yarn of the sort Disney used to know how to sell very well — 40 years ago. True, there's nothing here we haven't seen before. But the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel "A Princess of Mars," has been strip-mined by other storytellers for nearly 100 years. You can see its influence in everything from Superman and Flash Gordon to "Star Wars" and "Avatar."

Those imitators, however, can't rob Burroughs' tale of its intrinsic appeal.

It begins in the American Southwest, in the years following the Civil War, when disillusioned Confederate solder John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of "Friday Night Lights"), who has lost both his home and his family, accidentally activates a portal that transports him to Mars — or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. In the lower Martian gravity, this strange visitor from other planet is a virtual superman, able to leap modest-sized buildings in a single bound.

It's an ability that soon comes in handy, first when he's captured by the Tharks, a race of 15-foot-tall, four-armed warriors who live in the Martian wastes, and later when he finds himself a pawn in the never-ending war between two rival city-states: the enlightened city of Helium, ruled by Tardos Mors (CiarĂ¡n Hinds of "The Woman in Black"), and the despotic Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West).

All Carter wants is to return home, and the last thing on his agenda is getting caught up in another planet's civil war. But he runs into a complication when he rescues Tardos Mors' daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who may know how to return him to Earth but would much rather him stay to fight for Helium.

And they may all be pawns in the game being played behind the scenes by the mysterious figure portrayed by Mark Strong ("Sherlock Holmes").

Kitsch proves to be a real surprise. He's not the first actor who comes to mind when I think of John Carter, but he brings more charisma to the role than I'd expected. It helps, too, that he has a solid supporting cast, especially Willem Dafoe, via motion capture and CGI, as the Thark leader Tars Tarkas.

Director Andrew Stanton ("Toy Story") keeps things straightforward, and the screenplay by Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon retains the spirit of Burroughs while making some necessary updates, such as casting Dejah Thoris as less of a damsel in distress. (This Dejah can hold her own with a sword and a slide rule.) With the exception of an unavoidable infodump in the second act to bring our heroes up to speed, things move at a lively pace.

But the real stars here are Nathan Crowley ("The Dark Knight") and Michael Giacchino ("The Incredibles").

Crowley's gorgeous production design brings the bustling city of Helium to life, while Giacchino's lush, romantic score, sweeps us away to the adventure.

Forget that "John Carter" is officially a flop. It's time to get your mass to Mars.

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