From Dillon, Texas, to the canals of Mars, Taylor Kitsch lives up to his name in campy ‘John Carter’
If you’ve seen the TV ads for John Carter, you’ve heard the line that it’s “from the studio that brought you Pirates of the Caribbean.” That’s faint praise at best, but what you won’t hear is, “from the studio that brought you Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” Wise choice: If you have to compare your product to a bit of artistic detritus, at least have the sense to pick a successful movie.
Such pleas to entertainment loyalty send up flags to me. We get very little idea of the film’s plot, merely that the century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series, including John Carter of Mars, inspired countless sci-fi filmmakers.
True. And Conan the Barbarian was the first superhero. How did that movie do?
But the fact is, it really does kinda enhance your enjoyment to know “this was first.” Realizing George Lucas was inspired by the Martian “Jeddak” in naming his “Jedi,” or that the dearth of water on the dry planet formed the kernel of Frank Herbert’s Dune … well, such foreknowledge makes you appreciate the primogenitor of it all. It’s like listening to old blues recordings of songs Elvis later made famous.
It also helps by putting you in a forgiving mood when the film becomes convoluted (too much timeline hopping) or begins to feel derivative. Best not to use that word, anyway — it’s a pastiche, combining conventions of sci-fi (the Martians really are green), the Western (still a fairly new genre when Burroughs wrote his little bit of pulp), sand-and-sandal epics with a hint of Disneyfication (an adorable Martian dog).
The plot is a marvel of convolution: A Confederate soldier (Taylor Kitsch, who has moved up from troubled high schooler in Friday Night Lights to masculine but unthreatening action himbo) is magically transported to Mars, where his greater bone density, musculature and differences in gravity allow him to leap tall buildings in a single bound (yeah, that hero, too). He becomes embroiled in a war between red-skinned humanoids but lives among green, four-armed barbarians until a princess (Lynn Collins) and a superbeing (Mark Strong) … blah blah blah. It becomes occasionally tiresome, admittedly.
But John Carter is more about its impressionistic mythology and old-school storytelling energy than actual story. This is fantasy the way our grandfathers would have experienced it — crazy, sometimes campy, full of meaningless action and fighting. If you can see yourself as a kid, wrapping a towel around your neck like a cape and jumping around the backyard swatting at enemies, well then John Carter has done its job.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 9, 2012.