While it may not be the new “Star Wars,” as some had hoped, “John Carter” is a thoroughly entertaining throwback to science fiction swashbuckler crossovers – with stunning computer-generated visual effects.
Burroughs wrote the first draft of his debut John Carter novel in 1911. It was serialized as “Under the Moons of Mars” in a pulp magazine before being reprinted in its entirety in 1917, renamed “A Princess of Mars.” A classic example of 20th century pulp fiction, the tale spawned a series of books featuring a giddy mix of swordplay, alien races, acts of valor, daring feats and futuristic technologies.
The story focuses on John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, who, while seeking a fortune in gold, stumbles upon a sacred cave. While hiding from Apaches, Carter is transported to Mars – called “Barsoom” by those who live there.
Carter learns that Barsoom is a dying world, split into warring factions. He eventually becomes involved in the political upheaval of a crumbling civilization.
In the film, the U.S. Army as well as Apaches are hounding Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, when he takes refuge in a cave. After killing a Thern in self-defense, Carter is transported to Mars where – in a comic scene – he has difficulty adjusting to the lower gravity.
Carter is first captured by the Tharks, a barbarian race seemingly content to watch more powerful empires fight for control of Barsoom. He learns that Mars was once a world rich with life and civilization, but that it is now slowly dying, scarred by savage wars that have raged for thousands of years. On one side are the Zodangans, led by the vicious Sab Than (Dominic West) who derives much of his power from an omnipotent race called the Therns who are manipulating events on the planet for their own objectives.
The Zodangans have all but conquered the more civilized Heliumites. Princess Dejah Thoris of the Heliumites (Lynn Collins) has worked to find a solution to end the war and save Barsoom. Her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), King of Helium, has promised her hand in marriage to Sab Than.
Carter’s arrival on Mars causes the balance of power to shift. Though war-weary and initially unwilling to pledge himself to any cause, Carter eventually chooses sides in the conflict.
In portraying Carter, Kitsch borrowed a page from Clint Eastwood. In his anti-war sentiments, Carter is not unlike another cinematic Confederate veteran Eastwood portrayed in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Like many of Eastwood’s Western antiheroes, Kitsch makes Carter gruff, soft-spoken and curt.
Collins depicts Dejah Thoris as suitably strong-willed, capable and efficient. There’s no damsel-in-distress frailty in Collins’ eyes at any moment: One gets the distinct impression that with or without Carter’s help, Dejah Thoris would never admit defeat.
Willem Dafoe gives his voice to Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks. Dafoe handles the role tidily, delivering some of the film’s best wisecracks. Mark Strong portrays the apparent leader of the Therns, Matai Shang. His depiction of the manipulator is cold and merciless as he explains to Carter that Therns do not directly destroy worlds – they just manage the series of events that leads to doom.
There are several other performances that stand out in “John Carter,” including Ciaran Hinds as Tardos Mors, king of Helium; Samantha Morton as Sola and Daryl Sabara as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Let’s be honest, though: This film isn’t so much about great acting as it is about spectacle.
To direct this adaptation, Disney selected Andrew Stanton. Stanton directed and co-wrote the screenplay for Disney-Pixar’s “WALL•E” and he directed Disney-Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.”
Stanton managed to do more than just bring Burroughs’ work to the big screen: He fashioned a compelling, epic science fantasy that incorporates facets from numerous subgenres. Watching “John Carter,” one notices elements of classic Westerns, pirate romances, serialized science fiction, space opera and steampunk.
For those who argue that “John Carter” is unoriginal – that it borrows too heavily from films like “Star Wars: A New Hope” – Stanton makes a legitimate argument.
“‘John Carter’ is a big, epic sci?fi action-adventure with romance and action and political
intrigue,” Stanton wrote in his director’s comments. “Because the subject matter was written so
long ago, it became an origin of those kinds of stories in the last century … It was difficult to go back into this book and not look like you were being derivative of everything else, because it’s been an inspiration for things for 100 years.”
Perhaps the biggest achievement of “John Carter” is that, considering the tale is 100 years old, Stanton makes it seem fresh and exhilarating.
Stanton successfully captures the charm of classic pulp stories, weaving a comprehensible tale of politics and romance into an old-school science fantasy adventure complete with sword-fighting, interplanetary travel and alien landscapes. The epic big-screen adaptation of “John Carter” is corny, even goofy at times – but it’s fun, colorful, exciting and smart.