John Carter is a movie whose quality could be determined based on which lens you are viewing it through. It could be viewed as wholly derivative of every action film made in the last 50 years or, as I prefer, the grandfather of every action film made in the last 50 years. What could be seen as cliché or overdone could also be seen as being the progenitor of every cliché and trope. This is the burden that sits squarely on the shoulders of John Carter.
Originally published in the pulp magazine The All-Story in 1912 (yes 1912) with the title Under the Moons of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs used the pseudonym of Normal Bean, later changed to Norman Bean by a typesetter who believed the name to be a typo, to show that he wasnt a head case for writing such an outlandish and strange story. Later, in 1917, the novel was published as A Princess of Mars and would become the first of eleven stories serializing the adventures of John Carter.
The rights to turn this property into a film were acquired in the early 1930s and the idea of turning John Carter into an animated feature at Loony Tunes would have meant that this would have predated Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as the first full length animated film. Unfortunately, this did not happen and over the course of almost 80 years, many attempts have been made and every one has failed. I dont think it would be a stretch to say that this film could not have been made at any other time than now. The special effects necessary to create the Mars of Burroughs vision simply did not exist.
Although I know the history of this story, I have not read the novels which meant that I was able to walk into the theater this past weekend with fresh eyes and a non-spoiled frame of reference. I was pleasantly surprised at what unfolded a fantastic tale of adventure, quaint at times, yet, incredibly engaging and down right fun.
The film opens in 1881, London (actually, it opens on Mars with a quick backstory to the goings on between the two human civilizations of Helium and Zodanga and how one group, the Zondanga, who live on a moving predator city, are stripping the planet of its natural resources and being led by Kantos Kan (James Purefoy) with the aid of a magical weapon given to him by some mystical bald guys more on them later), where John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is sending a telegraph to his young nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs just prior to his death. As a young Burroughs begins reading the book his dear Uncle John left for him (along with the totality of his vast estate), outlining his tale, the movie takes us back to Arizona, 1968.
Prospecting for gold in the south west desert, we meet John Carter although he fought as a Confederate soldier; an Army commander (Bryan Cranston) does his best to enlist Carter to help fight off the Apaches causing some trouble. After a wonderfully humorous series of Carters escape attempts and subsequent beat downs, we come to learn that he is in search of a cave of gold. During the Apache fight, he finds his cave of gold and much more.
Im hesitant to say what that much more is, although, the idea of a 100 year old story containing spoilers is funny to me I believe going into this film with as little knowledge of what happens to be key to how much I enjoyed it. What I will say is that whatever happens in that cave, allows him to travel to Mars unbeknownst to him. Thanks to differing gravity between Earth and Mars, John Carter has what can only be described as superpowers at least the power to leap like Superman (bear in mind that originally, Superman could not fly, only leap over tall buildings and bear in mind, John Carter predates Superman be a couple of decades). As Carter figures out how to simply move, he makes a discovery that opens his eyes to the fact that he is no longer in Arizona in fact, he is no longer on Earth.
We are then introduced to the other race on Mars, the Tharks nine foot tall, four armed green creatures, and their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Tars Tarkas finds the leaping Carter and brings him to his tribe. The difference between Carter and the other humans on the planet is that the Martian humans are red skinned which comes across as a bad spray tan for the most part and certainly cant leap hundreds of feet into the air. He becomes an oddity to some a danger to others.
As the story progresses, we learn that Mars is called Barsoom, and Earth, Jasoom we are brought into the aforementioned war between the red peoples cities and as the original title implies, we meet the princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Throughout the film are also the mystical bald guys I mentioned earlier. These people are referred to as Therns, and their apparent leader is Matai Shang (Mark Strong in a very Mark Strong performance always great). Their significance is detailed in the film.
A brief note regarding these names they sound ridiculous, but remember this is a science fiction tale from the early 20th. Century. Oddly enough, as I watched the film roll out, the goofy names, odd looking aliens and their toad/dog-like pet seemed less and less silly and much more in keeping with the swashbuckling nature of the story because again, this was written long before the age of jets and space travel. This is a story that was written when ships that sailed the seas were a common mode of transportation, and on Barsoom, the air-ships behave as a seafaring vessel would they turn and fire cannons broadside at their enemies. Like I said quaint and it totally works. Think of a cross between the original Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon with a dash of Beastmaster for good measure not great, but fun with a strong backbone of an old pulp novel story.
Now I should address some of the complaints Ive read. One review I read (part of at least) focused almost entirely on Taylor Kitschs looks (yeah Im looking your way Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly) and his previous profession as an Abercrombie and Fitch model. Seriously? That passes as film criticism? I’m sure Taylor Kitsch is the only good looking actor out there. Bitter much Mr. Gleiberman? Other reviews have zeroed in on its derivative nature which, I imagine is a genuine critique but like I opened with, that would depend on your point of view. One could argue that this is a rip-off of almost every action-adventure story told over the last century an indigenous race is threatened by a more advanced civilization, only to be rescued by the noble member of the antagonistic race and of course, the damsel in distress or, one could say everything that came after 1912 is derivative of this story. Take your pick.
Another point I should make a film should be able to stand on its own regardless of its history. Does John Carter stand on its own? I believe it does. I found myself mesmerized by the beautiful CGI by the amazing foresight behind the original story and by a number of unexpected turns. The elements I found to be a bit silly in the beginning grew on me, especially Woola, the strange toad/dog thing. By the end, I couldnt imagine the film without him or the Tharks or the Therns.
My final analysis a strong B movie that will probably find a larger audience in the DVD and cable market. There are plenty of gripes one could make but without a story such as this, most of the greatest adventure stories we know Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Avatar would never have been created. The story moves along nicely with a great mixture of humor and action, and the visuals are wonderful. Yes, there is a cheesy quality to certain aspects of the film, but like many of the films that utilized the great Ray Harryhausen , there is a lovely quality to something as earnest in its approach as John Carter.
Who doesnt love a good wedding,
Cornelius J. Blahg
PS: For the record… I was going into this movie anticipating that I would completely dislike this and be able to give a bad review. Sometimes I feel like I’m too easy on bad movies, and I’m really not trying to be all Pollyanna on such things, or to be an Armond White style contrarian… I genuinely enjoyed John Carter… much to my surprise. Sometimes going into something with an open mind can be such a rewarding experience, and that is its’ own pay out in the end. Thanks again for reading… CJB