The critics were wrong! Period. John Carter the movie is an exciting, action-packed film with wit, imagination and more than enough human interest and sense of wonder to captivate even the most jaded film goer. Except maybe overpaid, underworked film critics.
The fact that the showbiz media (including certain cynical late night talk show hosts) can't seem to let go of how much this film cost (funny, nobody complains about the price tags of bigger-budgeted blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Avatar...) or how it's too much like Star Wars and other films that were openly influenced by John Carter's source material, while ignoring the actual entertainment merits of the movie itself, speaks volumes about how most critics today can't think outside the box. Or at least judge works based on their individual value. (A little background research -you know, actual work- on the critics' part regarding the film would've been nice too.)
Some personal background. Around the same time I saw this movie in 1972, I began reading the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Spurred on in part by then-recent DC comic book adaptations of Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, At The Earth's Core, Carson of Venus, Korak, Son of Tarzan, Beyond The Farthest Star (a personal favorite), and of course his Martian novels featuring transplanted earthman John Carter, I quickly got into the stories and enjoyed them immensely. (Although Carson was kind of a dud, until the posthumous 1964 publication of The Wizard Of Venus, but that's another blog post.) Burroughs' stories were exciting, action packed and romantic, with an occasional veiled social comment or two (Tarzan preferring the jungle to civilization; Carter noting that the Martians, or "Barsoomians" being lucky not having lawyers, etc.) tossed in. So when news broke that Disney was producing a multi-million dollar adaptation/update of the first Martian novel (co written by Michael Chabon, no less!), 1912's A Princess of Mars, well, I was thrilled!
AND I WASN'T DISAPPOINTED!!!! Sure, the pace of John Carter the movie is a little pokey in the early scenes, but it picks up once Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a ex-Confederate Army officer transported to Barsoom (Mars) from 1888 Earth who finds himself allied with the four armed Tharks (played by Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Polly Walker and Thomas Hayden Church, among others), rescues heroine Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) from certain death.
(Here's the official trailer for the film.)
Seems Dejah's people from the city of Helium are at war with the city of Zodanga, led by the shifty Sab Than (Dominic West), who's actually in league with a mysterious and technologically advanced group called the Therns led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong, solemn voiced as always), who have their own agenda. Carter, who discovers that due to the planet's atmosphere he has enhanced strength and can leap great distances (the scene where he first discovers these new abilities is wonderful, if a bit short), quickly uncovers what Shang and his bunch are up to, but must overcome both the differences between the Tharks and the people of Helium, as well as putting aside his own personal demons (well delineated in a series of flashbacks set during the American Civil War shown throughout the film) in order to defeat the Therns.
The casting is fine, with Collins' intelligent, self-sufficient (she's very handy with a sword) heroine, Dafoe's idiosyacratic take as Tars Tarkas, and a funny supporting bit by James Purefoy as Carter's ally Kantos Kan, among the standouts. Kitsch is good in the title role, puling off Carter's transformation from cynical, depressed war veteran to take-charge military leader and, thanks to Dejah, a man willing to put aside his own selfish needs for the woman he finds he can actually love. The special effects are fine, if a bit busy (and if you're nearly blind in one eye like me, the IMAX 3D process might put you off a little, but not too much), and there's some welcome humor; I LOVED the bit where Tars Tarkas slaps another character on the back of the head. (See the film to find out why it's funny.) Director Andrew Stanton did a great job maintaining the right mix of drama and wonder as well.
But don't take my word for it. Or the critics. If you've read the books, or are just interested in a good rousing action adventure film with science fictional overtones, check out John Carter for yourselves. You won't be sorry!
03/20/12 Update: Max Allan Collins weighs in on the film here (he's right too!).