Considering how many Tarzan movies there have been, it’s rather surprising that it took so long for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other major book series to come to the screen. The first John Carter story premiered exactly 100 years ago, in 1912. It was an important influence for everything from Superman to Star Wars and Avatar. Now that the books have finally made it to the big screen, the resulting movie, John Carter, gets the spirit of pulpy wonder mostly right, even if it suffers a little from studio efforts to make it respectable.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate cavalryman who finds himself in the Arizona Territory (“ the backside of hell”) in 1868 looking for a mysterious cave full of gold. After finally locating the cave, Carter is magically transported to Mars, which is called Barsoom by its denizens. There, much like Superman drawing his powers from Earth’s yellow sun, Carter finds that the red planet’s decreased gravity gives him great strength, and the ability to leap huge distances in a single bound.
Carter is captured by the Tharks, a race of nine-foot-tall, four-armed, green creatures with tusks, whose leader, the noble Tars Tarkas (Willen Dafoe), takes a shine to John. The relationship between the two is actually one of the more affecting things in the film.
Speaking of relationships, Carter soon meets and rescues Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the princess of a city called Helium, which is losing a war to the city of Zodanga, which is ruled by the sinister Sab Than (Dominic West). Guiding Sab Than behind the scenes is Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who is the member of a mysterious group called the Therns that want to exploit the Martian war for their own purposes.
As a means to stop the war, the princess has been promised to marry Sab Than, but she doesn’t want to see both herself and her city placed under his thumb. Once she discovers Carter’s abilities, Dejah tries to persuade him to intervene on Helium’s behalf. And after she and John start making sexy eyes at each other, she finds yet another reason not to marry Sab Than.
Carter is the live-action debut of director Andrew Stanton, who previously helmed Wall-E and Finding Nemo for Pixar. Considering how much CGI is on display here, one could argue that Stanton didn’t have to make that much of a transition. The film is full wall to wall with lush CGI, and for the most part Stanton shows he has an eye for creating live-action action sequences, even if the film’s climactic battle is a little too chaotic and cluttered.
Still, much of Stanton’s best work comes with the CGI elements of the film. The Tharks, which were created via motion-capture technology, very quickly stop seeming like artificial creations and just feel like characters in the story. And perhaps the most entertaining thing in the film is Woola, the incredibly loyal six-legged Martian dog-thing that looks like a cross between a bulldog and Jabba the Hutt and becomes Carter’s faithful companion.
Stanton hasn’t lost his visual flair, but his Pixar films undoubtedly had more coherent stories. The script, which Stanton co-wrote with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, retains the sense of wonder and discovery from the books, but the film does obviously suffer a bit from having to compress the books’ world into the film. Thankfully, it’s nowhere near as confusing or ponderous as, say, David Lynch’s Dune, but all the voiceover and framing devices can feel like a bit much.
The John Carter stories were always the sort of books that had a Frank Frazetta cover depicting a muscular, sword-wielding dude and a buxom, scantily clad lady, and that suited the tone of the stories just fine. However, turning the story into a huge-budget Disney tentpole has, to a certain extent, made the film glossier and more respectable than it should be. Some of the scuzzy pulp fun is gone. The characters have to wear more clothes than they did in the books (though not a lot more), and some of the violence is toned down ( in particular one scene in which Carter takes on a whole horde of Tarks by himself), and as a result the movie occasionally seems sanitized. It can still be rather gloriously weird, but it’s lost some of that rumble-tumble edge, that sublime pulp ridiculousness that made the story so enjoyable in the first place. A $250 million movie can’t afford that many rough edges.
Thankfully, for the most part Stanton often retains the story’s pulpy charm and wit. There is a nimbly edited sequence early on, when Carter meets and defies a Union army colonel (Bryan Cranston) that does a better job than the rest of the film how rough and ornery John Carter is supposed to be. There’s another great sequence, right after Carter awakens on Mars, that shows him attempting to figure out, with great trial and error, how simply to walk on Mars when his heightened strength wants to send him flying with every step. I also like how the movie opens with a voiceover telling us to ignore what science tells us about Mars, saying, basically, “You think Mars is dead, but you’re wrong.”
Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) is mostly fine in the title role, but he is a little young and pretty for the part. He hardly seems like the grizzled Civil War veteran he is supposed to be, and while he is supposed to be haunted by the death of his wife and child while he was gone to war, he hardly seems old enough to have had a child in the first place.
Even if Kitsch is merely adequate, Collins is very good as Dejah Thoris. She is very sexy, but she isn’t merely some sort of damsel in distress. She is a capable warrior as well as a scientist (she introduces herself not as a princess but as the regent of the Helium Academy of Science), and Collins fully invests her with the regality and determination the part demands.
The rest of the supporting cast is made up of the sort of British character actors who can make all the lines about Jeddaks and Therns and the River Iss seem interesting. West, The Wire’s, Jimmy McNulty himself, seems to be having a good time playing Sab Than as a brute who lucked into getting some powerful backers. Ciarán Hinds, who played Julius Caesar on the HBO show Rome, plays Dejah’s father, Tardos Mors, the leader of Helium. James Purefoy, who played Mark Antony on Rome, again plays Hinds’ righthand man here, as Kantos Kan, leader of Helium’s navy.
Despite occasionally feeling too Disneyfied and earnest, John Carter emerges as a very fun pulp story. The enthusiasm of its creators never fails to come across, giving the story real charm and a sense of high adventure.