WHO IS JOHN CARTER? – A NAME BURROUGH-ED FROM MARS

Well, it’s early spring, but the summer blockbuster watch is off an running as John Carter hits theaters tomorrow and like any film it may be living on Burrough-ed time before the next hit comes along. However, John Carter is one cool film and although it’s in the unnecessary format of 3-D, it is extremely refreshing not to have some uber-muscular, pretty boy playing the lead and taking on the evil empire, so to speak, mostly with his fists and feet.

The neatness is signaled early on when John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) or JC finds himself on a strange planet that literally puts a bounce in his step as he quickly learns to have the leaping ability of giant flea…or dare I say, is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yes, that chest plate is covering a large, top-half of an “S” (i.e. a “C”), and instead of a cape and being a newspaper reporter, JC has on traditional Sword and Sandal ware and is the Uncle of soon to be famous author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The movie begins with all the side orders of a good story–love and politics, time travel and mystical pathways between planets — badly sucked dry. Based on “A Princess of Mars,” the post-Civil War/pre-Tarzan brainchild of one of the most entertaining non-Disney imagineers of all times (JC’s nephew), the book and the Barsoom (Mars, which is also the name of a popular English sweet, a.k.a. candy bar, that Burroughs reportedly enjoyed during his times in England) series that would follow has been picked over for plot points by Hollywood for years.

So what will feel like ideas stolen from other movies in John Carter (think Star Trek, Avatar, Superman, Swordsman II, Star Wars and for those with a really open mind look for that nod to Braveheart), is really more a case of going back to the source. And although one can’t put Pandora back in the box, director Andrew Stanton prefers to keep it open and let what will come to come…and it really arrives with familiar fantasy themes…something old, something new, something Burroughed and something blue… good wedding.

You’ve got fun and fantasy, live action, comic book action, CGI brazen four-armed green alien savages with boar-like tusks, spaceships, gross dino-dog pets, giant white apes, Barsoom, dying-planet woes, warring factions, beautiful warrior princess and JC.

The film starts gleefully, playfully and promisingly in some dusty Western outpost on planet Earth with JC, a former Southern Civil War hero, conscripted by the cavalry to help tame the badlands and the Indian tribes. But of course JC works for no one as comically we get that sense right away as cavalry and Indians get all Custer, merely part of the custard desert that becomes a dessert (or is that the other way around).  Soon he, we and our pet cats are transported to Barsoom with the help of a Swiss cheesy-looking medallion, yep, it’s full of holes (but fortunately the plot isn’t). Getting back is even weirder, what with the chanting that’s required to activate some special effects that has special affects on the JC.

There is a glimpse of the red planet’s issues before JC gets involved, starting with a raging battle with very cool spaceships that look like ancient sailing vessels plucked out of the sea. It serves to introduce the chief villain, a fierce Zodanga fighter named Sab Than (Dominic West) and the challenge writers must now face on how to fill in a complex back story for newcomers without boring fans, and they do a decent job.

Sab is just the beginning of Barsoom’s problems. It turns out that he’s under the control of the shape-shifting, agenda-setting immortal Therns, with Matai Shang (Mark Strong, who played the blue looking Vulcan friend of Green Lantern in last summer’s pseudo-flop of the same name) the main cause of the film’s action, reaction and the splitting faction. Sab is out to crush the residents of Helium, the smart, peaceful set, with the first step to marry their beloved princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). But then the real gas of the movie are the Tharks, multi-armed green savages riding around in their loincloths, staging barbaric arena-style spectacles and waiting for Helium and Zodanga to destroy each other. Wait for that preachy moment in the movie where Matai Shang predicts Earth is on the same path.

Once JC does land, dazed, amazed and confused, on a Martian desert, he’s captured by Thark leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe…great make up, you’d never know it was him). Tars is entertained enough by JC’s jumping skills that he saves him (talk about having a spring in his step), and JC’s birth place quickly becomes the running joke of the movie. JC’s fate is soon tied to another Thark, Sola (Samantha Morton), something of a rule-breaker herself. Eventually circumstance will throw JC in Dejah’s path then sparks fly (as does John), plans are hatched (as does some freaky eggs that JC is witness to) and religion becomes a key factor in he savior of Earthkind, Johnkind, Heliumkind, humankind and those kind of things.

All of the intrigues play out against far out backgrounds, from the cave dwellings of the Tharks, to the towering spires of Helium, Barsoom’s barren wasteland and the rivers of Mars that no human has been able to spot with satellite, telescope or Voyager 1. The battles are fun and reminiscent of old style kung fu films made by Shaw Brothers in the 1970s where we know that once JC kicks in, similar to that well known Chinese kung fu star of the same acronym (Jackie Chan), the hero shall win, we know it and so it’s about sitting back and trying to enjoy the visuals.

At the end of the film, we now finally know where Edgar Rice Burroughs got the idea for his astoundingly cool serialized group of stories that was published as a novel under the moniker of A Princess of Mars in 1917, which I read in high school. As it turns out the film actually captures the spirit of the book.

As I was watching the movie, I was beside myself as I often let out giggles….why?  When I was working in Hollywood as a fight choreographer, I had the pleasure of doing an episode of CBS’s Martial Law on the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs…sweet.

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