BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After the Civil War, former Confederate soldier John Carter is suddenly transported to Mars, where he finds himself thrust into conflict between warring factions.
PROS: Well-realized renderings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom; impressive effects: good cast; eye-candy for men (Lynn Collins) and women (Taylor Kitsch).
CONS: Needless prologue; far too much exposition, causing pace to drag; respectful script that never lets loose the source material’s energy; uninvolving in places and occasionally too long.
This isn’t the review I wanted to write. I should be grateful that, nearly one hundred years after Captain John Carter first woke on the red sands of Barsoom in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, after numerous false starts and a disastrous straight-to-DVD release starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords, the dream of seeing one of Burroughs’s great heroes finally becomes reality.
So why should my reaction to John Carter be so tepid? Director Andrew Stanton, who helmed A Bug’s Life and Wall-E, not only possesses the knowledge of genre but also no small amount of love. His co-screenwriters include Michael Chabon, who has the distinction of winning not only the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) but also the Hugo Award (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), wrote the screenplay for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and professes a surprising reverence for all things geek. Say what one will about most science fiction movies, at least this time the makers know their stuff, and unlike faux geek Zack Snyder, have the talent to breathe life into their movie. Make no mistake: John Carter breathes, but too often it needs the aid of a respirator.
It starts on the wrong foot. In a brief prologue Prince Sab Than of Zodanga (Dominic West) battles an army before being given an exceptional technological gift by the Holy Thern Matai Shang (Mark Strong), which will give him an edge in defeating the armies of the city Helium. While this sequence introduces viewers to this particular vision of Mars, feels tacked-on and unnecessary. Worse, with a voice-over that tells the audience that Barsoom is a dying world, it evokes the opening monologue of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune. If you want to rouse your audience with a compelling pulp adventure, you may not want to invite comparisons to the artistic clumsiness of that particular effort.
Sadly, it stumbles again after the movie’s title card, in which a young Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arrives at his uncle John Carter’s (Taylor Kitsch; and I’m really trying not to make jokes about his name) estate after his death to read a manuscript. Why do this? Perhaps because it fits with the preface in Burroughs’s novel. Stanton, co-writer Mark Andrews, and Chabon so want to pay their respects that they provide an embellishment that, frankly, would have better served the movie had it been removed.
But then young Burroughs reads the manuscript, and the story can finally begin. While hiding from Apaches, Captain John Carter, formerly of the Confederate States of America, encounters a strange man in a gold-lined cave. After a scuffle that knocks him unconscious, Carter awakens to find himself on the arid sands of Barsoom, where the lighter gravity increases his strength and gives him the ability to leap far distances. (Learning to use his powers turns out to be one of the movie’s more amusing highlights.) While bounding across the desert he meets the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, ultimately earning the friendship of warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). An aerial attack leads to the Tharks’ capture of Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who, in traditional fashion, has been sworn to wed Prince Sab Than in order to bring peace to Helium and Zodanga. Supposedly. At any rate, Carter, who left earth a shell of his former self because of a family tragedy (told in flashbacks) during the war, decides to aid Dejah Thoris.
John Carter shines when it sticks closely to its pulp roots. Carter’s fight with a four-armed white ape amidst cheering Tharks showcases the best aspects of the character and the material, as do the battle sequences. Unfortunately, the script bogs everything down with pretension, as if Stanton, Andrews, and Chabon want somehow to transcend the material rather than embrace its lowbrow pleasures. Or perhaps they so love the material that they feel it ought to be given the same considerations Hugh Hudson gave Tarzan in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Understandable, given Chabon’s unconditional admiration of planetary romance, but it hobbles the script…which, in turn, weakens Stanton’s direction. The movie drags where it should soar like the Barsoomian flying machines.
These problems, in turn, bleed into the cast. While competent, none of the leads or supporting actors brings more than their minimal game to John Carter, especially bothersome in the cases of Strong and Ciarán Hinds, both of whom gave incredible performances in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Perhaps Stanton thought the inherent physical beauty of Kitch and Collins could make up for their routine interpretations of the title character and Dejah Thoris, respectively, but tighter focus from all of the thespians would have made up for the movie’s fitful pace.
And yet I can’t completely fault the movie. The Martian vistas are breathtaking, as are the spires of Helium. Such moments offer a grandeur that John Carter sorely needs, vistas that, for me, fulfill a thirty-year-old longing to witness.
Ultimately, perhaps the problem lies with age and time. Burroughs’s landmark character contributed so much of his creative DNA to Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, and a host of other movies that the sense of wonder those early tales inspired simply cannot have the same frisson as before. I wish I could have offered effulgent praise for John Carter. Instead, I’ll have to settle for the smile of recognition it brought to me.