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Sci-fi Fans: 'Carter's' Calling!

Movie review of "John Carter," rated PG-13.

Yes, Virginia, there is a John Carter, and it's good!

Last week, I wrote a review of "John Carter" that was on the positive side of the 50 percent of the balance of good and bad that were released by critics worldwide. 

Here's an update: There is a chorus of strong voices rising comprised of rabid fans of the film, who are creating Facebook pages, blogs, and videos, attempting to get more movie lovers to see for themselves what they believe to be a highly entertaining and sequel-worthy film. 

See for yourself on Facebook, where the page "Take me back to Barsoom! I want John Carter to have a sequel" is at more than 4,000 members and growing.  

My own experience as an art gallery owner who sells film art (and yes, despite the pre-release press about what a bomb the film would be, they did release art from this film) is that every artist I know who illustrates or has created work for movies is at least a fan of if not an evangelist for the film. 

That speaks to the artistic quality of the film at the very least. As per my original review, I'm not saying it's the best sci-fi ever, but certainly worthy of viewing. If the mediocre fourth installment of "Pirates of the Caribbean" can bring in $250 million, one hopes the risk taken by director Andrew Stanton deserves a chance to reach a bit higher than the so far $110 million worldwide.  

There have been a number of missteps in its release, most notably the marketing campaign, which was focused on an older audience but didn't show a diversity of what the film is about, nor how expansive and impressive the special effects are throughout. 

And, Virginia residents, we figure prominently in the film, as John Carter is from Virginia, and the Barsoom locals mistakenly call him by the state's name for a good part of the movie. That might be worth popping in to a theater, no?

Here is my review of the movie:

Here Cinema Siren goes again, going against the critical masses. I love "John Carter." While it groans under the pressure of its need for exposition, it is an exotic and thrilling space tale that embraces its awkward hugeness with such a sense of fun and excitement, I, along with much of the audience, couldn't help becoming invested in it and walking out grinning.

On the other hand, I love Comic-Con, Superheroes, "Star Wars" and great big exciting space operas…If you are like many, you've seen the crazy previews for the new and famously expensive Disney release "John Carter" and asked yourself, "What the heck is this movie about?" or "Don't we already have a Conan the Barbarian?" or "Didn't 'Cowboys and Aliens' already come out?" Well let me elucidate and clear up some of the confusion.

The story is of an emotionally wrecked civil war vet who, while being chased through Western territory by both soldiers and Indians, stumbles into a cave and is mysteriously transported to the planet Barsoom (otherwise known as Mars). There, he encounters an alien race of green Martians called "Tharks," (including a chief or "jeddak" named Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe) a beautiful princess and scientist named Dejah, and assorted bad guys trying to take over the city-state of Helium along with the whole planet of Barsoom.

The movie shows Carter's struggle between staying the neutral pacifist his wartime losses have made him, and choosing to help his new Thark friends, Dejah, and the people of Helium, with the greatly increased strength and power the reduced gravity of Barsoom affords him.

His inner turmoil, as well as his courage and determination, make him a compelling action sci-fi character around which to potentially build a new franchise. New? If this plot sounds like a mishmash of lots of classic sci-fi stories, there's a reason for that. "John Carter" is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel, 1917's "The Princess of Mars," the first in a series of 11 books which predate "Tarzan."

Aspects of the stories reportedly inspired "Superman," "Flash Gordon," "The Martian Chronicles," "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Wars." A host of 20th-century science fiction writers including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke, filmmakers James Cameron (who mentioned the series' influence on "Avatar" in a New Yorker interview) George Lucas, and scientist Carl Sagan credit these stories as major childhood influences that inspired them to write or seek important scientific answers.

In fact, the popularity of this series reportedly helped fuel interest in a space program. Did the naysayers calling it derivative do their homework and realize just how closely it followed the original novel, or how many future works of fiction that novel spawned? Its influence alone should create curiosity or motivation to see an incarnation on film.

Many attempts at making it have been started and aborted over the last 100 years, most recently by a pre-"Cowboys vs. Aliens" Jon Favreau. Finally, Oscar-winning director and writer Andrew Stanton of "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo" fame took up the considerable gauntlet, both directing it as his first live action effort, and co-writing the screenplay.

As to the best aspects of "John Carter," it is first and foremost a joy to watch visually. The production design and set decoration, as well as the prop and costume-making are a thing of beauty. On Barsoom, the various contraptions for flying, the creatures, and the architecture all come together in an inventive mix of steampunk, old school sci-fi, and modern tech to create a cohesive fantasy world. 

The acting by the leads is better than I would have expected, especially given how pretty they are. Taylor Kitsch as John Carter plays tortured and war weary well, but adds comic relief as scripted, and looks tasty in his (minimal) "swords and sandals" costume. Lynn Collins is a feisty handful and believable as both princess and scientist, although her chest is featured in such gravity-defying prominence it should have its own billing. The dependable Ciaran Hinds (as Dejah's dad and ruler of Helium) and Willem Dafoe (as Tars Tarkas) are good as always, and add a respectable weight to the cast. 

There are definite trouble spots. There is too much exposition, clearly an attempt to take us fully into the complicated world Burroughs constructed for his original book series. The human characters are less interesting than the multi-armed aliens. Some of the villainy represented (including Mark Strong) are a bit too inexplicably aloof for their motivations to be understood and reviled.

Some of the romance scenes seem a bit tacked on, no doubt in an attempt to fit so much into the proceedings. Gratefully, all these lesser bits get lost if you invest, like I did, in what the filmmakers have built.

Ultimately, enjoyment of this movie depends, as it so often does with sci-fi, on complete submersion in the created world, with complete suspension of disbelief. The script has way more depth than the usual phoned-in sci-fi, as exemplified in one sequence by visual references of John Carter's haunted past being juxtaposed with current battle scenes.

At the same time, it's more fun than I've had in a blockbuster sci-fi flick in a long time—one doglike creature that takes a liking to John is instantly lovable and memorable. The flying sequences are very exciting. I will say I’m not sure they would have been any less thrilling in 2-D.

Go and make up your own mind about whether Stanton did enough with this classic that it warrants more than one film in the series. I walked out of this one wishing they were already making the next one. I'm a proud sci-fi geek and happy I found another movie to enjoy.

I've yet to find one of us that didn't enjoy "John Carter." Are you one of us? If you are, put down your comic book, or your light saber, or ape mask or NASA app and celebrate why those things exist by seeing the movie based on what started it all. It's the least we can do.

About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren", is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. See more of her reviews and interviews onwww.artinsightsmagazine.com.

Lucy March 18, 2012 at 11:07 PM
Thank you for speaking up about John Carter. It's an awesome movie and I don't understand why the critics are hating on it. Hooray for Andrew Stanton and DIsney for masking such an epic Sci-fi film. Go see it!
Sarah March 19, 2012 at 02:50 AM
This was a great movie! I usually agree with the Hollywood reviewers, but in this case I just don't understand why they panned it so badly. It was fantastic fun. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in a long time. The acting was great, with Lynn Collins excelling as the great shining star of the picture. The special effects were wonderful. The costumes were marvelous! Everyone should go see it.
Chris Farley March 19, 2012 at 05:42 AM
Great science fiction film. All the critics are horribly wrong ( or dont like classic science fiction). Cant wait for the sequal
Bill Crim March 19, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Just want to join the chorus. This to me is one of the best action adventure films ever made. It has all the elements including a truly heroic hero.
Leslie Combemale March 19, 2012 at 10:38 PM
Thanks so much for all the wonderful positive feedback! I have to laugh about the critics I encountered today at a closed press preview (for Hunger Games) with whom my stock visually plummeted after my declaring I wrote a positive review for John Carter. Ahem...I AM part of the 51%-and we aren't going quietly!!


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