100 years ago Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of Tarzan) wrote ‘A Princess of Mars’, a sci-fi fantasy epic that would go on to influence a century of storytellers, from the Flash Gordon serials to George Lucas’ Star Wars – you can even spot its blood in James Cameron’s recent Avatar. Now it’s finally time for Burroughs’ vision to shine, and it does so under the name of its titular hero. The big question however, is does John Carter the movie stand toe-to-toe with the stories that Burroughs’ original work inspired?
The answer is, expectedly, yes and no. John Carter is easily the type of movie that someone might watch and find to be an expensive rip-off of movies like Star Wars and Avatar; it’s predictable and full of tired clichés. Yet one would do well to consider that ‘A Princess of Mars’ practically helped cement those contemporary clichés, and while that doesn’t excuse the film’s familiar structure it does make it a bit more of a cinematic curiosity… a bit more appreciable – it lessens the blow so to speak.
It’s interesting then to watch John Carter and note its connections in retrospect to stuff you’ve seen elsewhere. There’s the alien culture that the main character grows to love, the arena battle with monstrous beasts and the feisty princess. John Carter himself is a character that’s seen many iterations over the years, so much so that what was once a wondrous and original creation is now sadly rote and mundane.
Ah… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Yes, the plot: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former American Civil War veteran who’s transported to Mars, which is called Barsoom by the natives. In a delightful early scene, Carter discovers he can perform extraordinary feats of strength, jumping in huge leaps and bounds across the planet’s surface. It’s a simple matter of his human anatomy in the low gravity environment, and recalled scenes from Dragon Ball Z in which characters would train in high gravity to increase their speed and strength. It makes a degree of sense, but no doubt some physics major will soon tell me that it’s impossible. Next thing you know they’ll be trying to convince me that there aren’t any aliens, breathable air and water on Mars as well!
Carter encounters the tall race of green-skinned Tharks, befriending their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) as well as vulnerable Sola (Samantha Morton). The Tharks are an ingenious creation – they have four arms, tusks and a few memorable peculiarities. They call Carter ‘Virginia’ since they think that’s his name, leading to some hilarious sequences, and have an adorable, super-fast doglike creature called Woola (I can already hear the wheel of the merchandising machine in motion).
It’s in these moments of surprising hilarity that John Carter excels, and it’s all thanks to the experience brought by director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). This is Stanton’s first live-action feature film, similar to Brad Bird who directed last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Another similarity to Ghost Protocol is the composer, as both films have astounding soundtracks by Michael Giacchino, who manages to lend a lot of grand, operatic scope to John Carter‘s parched setting.
Anyhow, back to the plot. Carter finds himself in the middle of another civil war, this time fought between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. It’s not the Tharks who are fighting though, instead it’s the ‘Red Men’, a race of people who look much like humans save for their red tattoos and blue blood – their culture seems to be based on Rome. Hell, the film even features several actors from the TV show Rome. Carter just wants to find a way to return home however, but gets embroiled in the conflict when he saves scantily-clad Dejah (Lynn Collins), Princess of Helium.
Unfortunately, the romance between Carter and Dejah is entirely too forced and not as natural as it should be. Moreover, the movie’s villains aren’t very effective. You’ve got Dominic West as the not very menacing Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga. Mark Strong also appears as ‘that bald guy who’s evil’. My problem with Strong is that I can’t see the character, only the actor, and even an awesome name like Matai Shang doesn’t change that. My favourite antagonist is probably the Thark Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) even though his role is limited.
Regardless, the movie is still exciting, with some solid action and spectacular setpieces (a minor niggle: the climactic action scene is a bit rushed). The special effects are impressive, and it’s nonetheless obvious that John Carter was an expensive film to make. There’s one sequence that intercuts the action with flashbacks from Carter’s life on Earth, which is particularly effective. Did I mention that Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad) also has a terrific cameo as a Civil War colonel? Throw in an interesting framing device using the real-life Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character and you’ve got everything you need for a satisfying big screen adventure from Disney.
A Civil War veteran is transported to Mars in this slightly cheesy but technically impressive sci-fi fantasy epic with elements of a Western action adventure.