In the beginning, Edgar Rice Burroughs begat the original “cowboy versus aliens” story about John Carter and his adventures on the Red Planet of Mars, and our nerdy forefathers of a century ago saw that it was good. Decades later, the John Carter saga begat the Star Trek and Star Wars space-operas that fueled the imaginations of a new generation of fantasy and science-fiction fans and creators. The popularity of these new films and the technological advances that came with them then begat the new John Carter film, and it is very good, as well as being the craziest Ouroboros circle-of-life scenario in pop culture history.
The new film takes some liberties with the John Carter of Mars tale that fans of the Burroughs’ books will note, but the gist of the story remain intact. While mining for gold in the Arizona desert, Civil War hero John Carter is attacked by hostile Indians and when he takes refuge in a mysterious cave he suddenly finds himself transported to the distant planet Mars (or Barsoom) where he finds himself in the middle of a battle between warring alien races over the meager resources of a dying planet.
Because of Mars’ lower gravity, Captain Carter finds he has increased strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound (if this sounds like Superman, you’re right; Kal-El creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were inspired by the John Carter books when they created Superman in 1938.) His abilities intrigue the tusked, four-armed warrior aliens known as the Tharks, and they see him as tool that they can use against their enemies.
Carter soon finds himself mixed up with the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris of the Martian empire of Helium, and he must decide between helping the Tharks, helping Dejah and Helium, or helping himself by trying to get back to Earth and his goldmine. Like any red-blooded American, Carter chooses the hot alien princess.
If you are uninitiated in Barsoomian lore, then you might find yourself a little lost in the mix of Therns, Tharks, calots, thoats, Zodangans and the white apes that make up the world of John Carter, but don’t let that dissuade you. As a lifelong fan, it was a little hard to keep up myself, but that’s all part of the fun. After all, who knew what a Wookiee was before Star Wars?
Taylor Kitsch, who played Gambit in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film, does an excellent job as John Carter, with just the right blend of gentleman and stalwart swagger. The pulp-fiction hero of the Burroughs books revels in his role of warrior and he always has a hankering for the heat of battle, and while that predilection may seem odd to today’s modern man, it is an essential part of the Carter character and it is well delivered in Kitsch’s performance.
Dejah Thoris is played by Lynn Collins, who also stared as Silver Fox in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie. There are some huge shoes to fill in this role as the Princess of Mars and any actress would find it difficult to deliver on this literary warrior woman who launched the imaginations and libidos of untold thousands of fanboys and fantasy artists. Collins does a great job portraying Dejah’s three B’s; brains, battle-prowess and (let’s face it folks, this is fantasy film) breasts. My only complaint is that she seemed a little older than I expected, but as Martians can live up to 1,000 years old, I’m sure she is still quite young.
Other characters in John Carter are voiced by some well know talent including Willem Dafoe as Carter’s four-armed friend Tars Tarkas, Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus the Jeddak (leader) of the Thark clan, Samantha Morton as Sola, Tars Tarkas’ daughter, and Polly Walker as Sarkoja, the Tharkian troublemaker extraordinaire. But the biggest stars in John Carter are its special effects and animation which, from the steampunk-influenced airships to the Thark aliens and white apes, is downright amazing.
Of special mention is the computer animated character of Woola, John Carter’s Martian calot (dog). The interplay between Carter and the CGI critter perfectly captures the feeling of the book, when Carter’s only friend on this savage and hostile planet was this beast that repays his human’s kindness with unwavering loyalty. Call it corny if you will, but I loved it.
It is easy to lovingly sing the praises of this film that brings a lifetime of dreams and fantasies to life, but John Carter is not without its minor problems. Writer-director Andrew Stanton has added an Outlaw Josey Wales-style back story to the Carter origin that potentially helps explain some of his motivations in the story, but that I think was completely unnecessary and distracting. The screenplay combines storylines from at least the first three Burroughs books (A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars) and the result is a somewhat convoluted narrative that might make some moviegoers feel lost.
Another problem is in some of the casting. While great efforts were made to create distinct animated characters that stood out on their own, some of the humanoid (real) actors looked and acted too much alike to be able to distinguish one from the other. This can probably be attributed to Andrew Stanton’s lack of experience with human actors, as John Carter is this Pixar director’s first live-action picture. Case in point is James Purefoy as Kantos Kan (good guy) and Dominic West as Sab Than (bad guy). These actors look enough alike that sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Throw in Mark Strong as shapeshifter Matai Shang, who sometimes changes into one or both of these other characters, and you become more confused than a calot chasing its tail.
Old-fashioned, corny melodrama is what the John Carter pulp fiction “interplanetary romance” stories are all about. If this is something you are predisposed to dislike, then you are not going to care for this movie, but if you are a fantasy fan then John Carter is a lifelong dream come true. This Disney film harkens back to the Walt Disney live-action movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and more modern Disney fare like The Rocketeer and I felt it had the distinct Disney feel of innocent naiveté – and I mean that in an endearingly good way. But don’t think that because it is sentimental that John Carter is not subsequently bad-ass. There are several battle sequences that would make Frank Frazetta blush and that are sure to appease hardened action fans. To see these scenes come life is almost a religious experience for a fanboy.
John Carter of Mars has been with us for a hundred years and like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional character, he will live forever, continuing to influence generations of fantasy fans, artists, scientists and dreamers to come. Not enough can be said about this serious effort to bring the legend to life. Is it perfect? No, but it was worth the wait, and I can’t wait for more.
A note on 3D: It’s not really necessary to see the 3D version of John Carter as there is no real visual “wow” factor in its use of the 3D technology. I feel the same way about most 3D movies and it is not a reflection of this film, but a personal preference. There are too many presentation factors that play into whether a film is going to work when using this gimmick, chief among them is a darkening and depreciation of the image on the screen because the theater is using an old projector bulb to save money, or they are just altogether oblivious to the problem. For interesting insight into this issue you can check out this story about Michael Bay’s frustration with 3D and movie theaters.