As a teenager I read the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and at age 59, I’m in the process of reading and enjoying them once again. They are filled with high adventure and fantasy and the movie is very faithful to the source material, which is celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this year. John Carter, the movie, is a combination of the first two novels; A Princess of Mars, and parts of The Gods of Mars, successfully updating and streamlining the story into a cohesive narrative. The movie takes us to a fantasy world imagined by Burroughs in the early 20th century.
John Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, comes off as a very likeable, determined person, a man looking for wealth and solitude after the loss of his family. The opening scene shows us that this is shortly after the Civil War, and sets his character off on a journey, where he is kidnapped and imprisoned by Colonel Powell; his subsequent attempts to escape are very funny. On the run Carter enters a cave and, not to give away too much here, finds himself transported to Mars.
Carter’s struggle with Martian gravity, much lower than Earth’s, is hilarious. He soon discovers that he can leap great distances. Arriving on the scene is Tars Tarkas, who is voiced and motion captured by the talented Willem DaFoe. Tarkas is the leader of the Tharks, who are green and have four arms. Tarkas’s observation of Carter’s great abilities leads him to try to recruit him to fight for his people.
John Carter forms a connection with Woola, a creature which is kind of a cross between a dog and a dinosaur. He is super fast and becomes a companion to Carter, reminding me of Lockjaw from the Fantastic Four.
There are two humanoid races of Barsoom (Mars). The people of Helium are trying to survive against the Zordangans, who are using machines to deplete Mars’ resources. The Heliums are the good guys; the Zordagans are the bad guys. Got it?
Princess Dejah Thoris, as played by Lynn Collins, is excellent. She is a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman who can kick ass. Her first encounter with John Carter is during an exciting air battle. The commander of the ship is Kantos Kan (played by James Purefoy) who, like Dejah, is from Helium. They are under attack by the Zordangans, led by Sab Than (played by Dominic West). Throw in Matai Shang (excellently played by Mark Strong), a Tharn high priest who manipulates events and is the major threat to Princess Dejah and her people. It is he who provides a game changing weapon to Sab Han.
This is the first big exciting action piece of the movie. It wonderfully mixes ancient technology, weird, amazing flying ships, and sword fights. This is repeated throughout the movie, with characters being caught, rescued, with major revelations provided along the way. The final battle is classic.
The CG effects were excellent and not overpowering. Real sets and locations were used, so there is a sense of reality when watching the movie. The humor is also effective and appropriate. Typical of this genre we encounter battles, a quest, mistrust and conflicting emotions. Friendships are made, and John Carter discovers that love can mend his broken heart.
The movie is not perfect. Some of the dialogue and exposition is stilted. The biggest problem is the direction that was taken with the advertising campaign. Previews said it looked like Star Wars and others of its kind. The campaign should have made it clear that the movie was the brainchild of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the grandfather of science fiction, high adventure and fantasy. Burroughs, as creator of Tarzan and John Carter, was the true forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman and even Star Wars. The movie should have promoted this fact.
Ignore the naysers–go out and enjoy a great movie.