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‘John Carter’ delivers pulp sci-fi fun

Article Published: Mar. 15, 2012 | Modified: Mar. 16, 2012
‘John Carter’ delivers pulp sci-fi fun

Taylor Kitsch stars in ‘John Carter.’

When I think Mars, I think Arnold Schwarzenegger wreaking havoc on the red planet in 1990’s “Total Recall.”

Twenty-two years later, there’s still plenty of havoc – albeit it PG-13 havoc – to be wrought in “John Carter,” a rollicking science-fiction adventure forged in early 20th-century pulp fiction.

Combining Old West gusto with high-flying sci-fi, it’s a high-budget B-movie that unabashedly celebrates its trappings in a manner reminiscent of 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Like “Raiders,” “John Carter” revels in superb action set pieces with special effects aplenty and a sweeping musical score, all self-aware and quite happy to be so. But where “Raiders” soars, “Carter” stumbles on the Martian landscape with an overlong runtime and some uneven pacing, both of which work toward its detriment, but not nearly enough to steer an audience away.

To say “John Carter” has been a long time coming is somewhat of an understatement. The film’s release marks the centenary of the character’s first appearance, when author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Under the Moons of Mars” was published as a serial in 1912. Reportedly fearing derision from his peers, he wrote it under the pseudonym, “Normal Bean,” which was mistaken as a typo by an editor who changed it to “Norman Bean.”

But when the story proved to be a hit, Burroughs dropped the pseudonym and kept on writing, even introducing another character to American fiction – Tarzan. While Tarzan undoubtedly swung into the spotlight of pop culture, Burroughs continued writing Carter’s adventures on Mars, even rereleasing his first story in novel form, under the title, “A Princess of Mars.”

John Carter soon became a pulp fiction favorite, but was eventually overshadowed by Tarzan’s popularity on the page and screen.

In “John Carter,” Disney and director Andrew Stanton, a Pixar veteran who helmed such favorites as “Finding Nemo” and “WALL*E,” brings the character back to vibrant life with a compelling adventure that serves as both an origin story and straight-up adventure.

A Confederate veteran of the Civil War, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) has put fighting behind him to start life as a prospector in Arizona. When accidentally involved in a skirmish between Union soldiers and a band of Apaches, he takes refuge in a cave, only to be transported to the deserts of Mars – or Barsoom, as the natives soon tell him.

Rather than the dead planet we now know it to be, Burroughs’ Mars is a dying planet with mixed inhabitants with mixed motives – the Zodanga are conquerors and pillagers, while the people of Helium are peaceful and dedicated to science, and also Zodanga’s next target.

Carter, however, first encounters a different beast altogether. The tribal Tharks – tall and blessed with six legs, green skin and tusks – are led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, “Shadow of the Vampire”), who captures Carter for his acrobatic prowess, as Mars’ low gravity seemingly grants him super powers.

It’s not long until the Zodanga-Helium conflict finds its way to the Thark village, leading Carter to intervene, in the process rescuing Helium’s Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) from Zodangan conqueror Sab Than (Dominic West, HBO’s “The Wire”).

Sab Than has offered to spare Helium in exchange for Dejah’s hand in marriage, a prospect she finds less than appealing, and Carter’s rescue spurs an adventure that spans the Martian desert in search of answers, a way home and maybe even a solution to the Martians’ predicament.

It’s all in good fun, something with which director Stanton is all too familiar; there’s nothing deep or profound, just old-fashioned science fiction with modern special effects.

The effects are decent, although computer-generated wizardry has yet to create an animated character that looks truly lifelike. “Carter” comes close, though, thanks much to Dafoe and other motion-captured performers, including Samantha Morton (“In America”) and Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”).

As Carter, Kitsch effectively brings that Western hero bravado to Mars, while Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) makes yet another convincing turn as the film’s mysterious villain (of sorts).

At 132 minutes, “Carter” is somewhat lengthy for its subject matter, but the uneven pacing is offset by creative action sequences and B-movie revelry.

As Arnold repeatedly said in “Total Recall,” “Get your @$$ to Mars.”

“John Carter,” rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 13-B or visit

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