About forty years ago, I read A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs for the first time. I’ve read it several times since then and seen bits and pieces of it pop up in unexpected places [Han Solo, a reprint of the first issue of Superman and, most recently, Avatar – among others]. John Carter marks the first time I’ve seen all the bits from everywhere else put together in the proper context – and it feels like my memories of the book. It is daft and spectacular and often weirdly offbeat for a mainstream, big budget movie, but mostly it’s just glorious fun.
John Carter opens with a sequence on Mars/Barsoom, with the Jeddak [Emperor] of Zodanga, Sab Than [Dominic West] and his armies about to be defeated by the forces of Helium when the mysterious Matai Shang [Mark Strong] gives him a weapon that turns the tide in his favor. Though impressive looking, it is accompanied by the kind of portentous narration that is usually unintentionally funny [as it is here].
From there, we cut to Earth as a young man gets off a train and is transported to the home of his uncle, John Carter [Taylor Kitsch] – and greeted by Carter’s attorney. Carter, it seems, is dead and has left his entire estate to his nephew, Ned – Edgar Rice Burroughs [Daryl Sabara]. Included in that estate is Carter’s journal, to be read by Ned – and only Ned. Ned begins to read…
John Carter, former Confederate cavalry captain, attempts to get supplies before be taken by Union soldiers and made an offer he’s not supposed to refuse, by a Captain Powell [Bryan Cranston]. Breaking out of a [very] rude cell, Carter steals Powell’s horse and heads for the hills [literally] – pursued by Powell.
The two are confronted by Apaches – Carter speaks the language but doesn’t get points for that – who chase them into the hills, where Powell is wounded and Carter carries him to a cave that turns out to be a portal to another world – a world of mixed technologies and at least two sentient species. Despite Mars’ lesser gravity giving him the ability to leap great distances [as Simon & Schuster had their hero, superman do in the character’s earliest adventures], coupled with much greater strength than the locals, his inability to master these gifts leaves captive of one of those species, the Tharks – a nine-foot tall, six-limbed, green-skinned race with tusks.
The film goes on to introduce us to the human species on the planet – which they call Barsoom [Earth is Jasoom] – and the beautiful Dejah Thoris [Lynn Collins], daughter of the Jeddak of Helium. Poor Dejah, despite being a scientist and a pretty decent warrior, has been promised to Sab Than in order to save the city of Helium, but she has other ideas.
It’s Carter who has to find a way to put an end to centuries of civil war between the Tharks, Zodangans and Heliumites – and win the heart of the Barsoomian princess.
Directed by Andrew Stanton [Wall*E, Finding Nemo] in his live-action debut, John Carter is an odd concoction – one part western, one part sci-fi epic and one part sword & sandal epic. As it leaps, like Carter, from place to place, it picks up momentum and turns into the kind of gloriously fun romp that will remind of Star Wars [another creation that was, in part, inspired by Burroughs’ Barsoom novels].
There are fantastic flying warships and personal fliers; huge guns and plenty of swords, spears and other implements of war – echoing both Jules Verne and the cavalry traditions of the Civil War. The weapon given Sab Than is an energy weapon powered by something called the Ninth Ray and fires blue energy that disintegrates whatever it’s aimed at.
The characters, from Carter to Dejah to Than, are prototypes that have become stereotypes – Carter, the Southern gentleman who wants nothing of fighting after losing his family in the Civil War; Dejah, the spunky, smart, capable woman who is consistently held back by the conventions of her upbringing; Than the would-conqueror who knows little of tact or tactics. The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas [Willem Dafoe] is tough, smart, violent and yet, also compassionate; his disloyal opposition, Tal Hajus [Thomas Haden Church] is almost the same, lacking only compassion.
Over these archetypal roles, the cast members layer the minutiae that bring them to life – Kitsch gives Carter a weariness that gradually dissolves as he discovers the wonders and horrors of Barsoom; Collins give the powerful yet constrained Dejah a personal ferocity of will and the ability objectively see the humor in a situation; Dafoe makes Tars Tarkas’ compassion subtle and his pain when betrayed because of that compassion becomes more vivid.
One character sure to provoke delight is Woola, a huge, ridiculously fast that might be the offspring of a bulldog and some kind of large lizard. He/it steals every scene he’s/it’s in.
John Carter has its WTF moments – some silly/goofy, some just wrong [a sequence in which Matai Shang takes a captive Carter to a cell, changing into various other people – a young warrior, an old woman among them – seems to exist just to show off CG morphing software, for example] – but it has interesting characters [some of whom have inspired more recent ones – there’s more than a little Princess Leia and Xena in Dejah, for instance, and some Han Solo and Indiana Jones in Carter], some amazing action sequences and much more humor than I was expecting.
The bookending of the story with Carter’s ‘nephew,’ Ned/ Edgar Rice Burroughs was inspired and gives the movie a feeling of solidity against which Carter’s Barsoomian adventures can fly – or, at least, leap.
The screening I attended wasn’t IMAX, but if I had the bucks, I would certainly take in an IMAX screening – it would be pretty dazzling, I’m sure. The standard 3D screening was impressive enough to make me happy. It’s a shame that John Carter needs to make half a billion dollars to break even [after marketing costs are factored in]. It’s good enough that I’d really like to see the sequel.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of Disney