John Carter. In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs released the first book in what would become an 11-book series (ending in 1943). These books set the stage for modern science fiction and the subgenre known as “planetary romance.” Yes, that’s a real thing. It’s taken 100 years for the film to come to the big-screen. Until now, movie companies weren’t confident in being able to bring this adventure to life.
Well, there was this 2009 version starring Antonio Sabato Jr and former adult film actress Traci Lords. However awesome that looks, it can’t compete with this 2012 version released by Disney.
So, when I started seeing advertisements for John Carter, I was hesitant. I didn’t know there was a history and it looked like it took the best parts of Star Wars: Episode 2 and plugged in the guy who played Gambit for 2 seconds in Wolverine: Origins. I wasn’t sure I’d like it.
I did. I liked it a lot.
What’s the general gist?
John Carter is a soldier in the Civil War and when the war is over, he’s spending time in Arizona searching for gold. Well, he finds a secret link to the planet of Mars that sends him shooting across space. I was concerned that the movie spent too much time with John Carter on Earth, but it definitely paid off as we start to watch his interactions with the people of “Barsoom,” aka Mars. The earlier scenes definitely set the stage for how our hero would act.
Well, then things get a little complicated. There’s two warring nations of men (who conveniently wear red and blue to differentiate between them) and then there is a nation of four-armed green martians who are trying to stay out of the war. John spends time with all three nations throughout the span of the movie.
I was worried that the CGI work was a little sloppy when I saw the earlier trailers. The “Tharks” (the four-armed martians) looked a little unpolished and since they seemed to be the focal point, I was concerned. When the Tharks first appear on-screen, my concerns were alleviated. It looked amazing. Whether in battle or just conversing, the Tharks are convincingly real.
John Carter is a complex but completely relateable character. By spending time with him on Earth, we have a solid foundation for his personality. Screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton did the smart thing by interspersing flashbacks to Earth in pivotal moments in the Mars storyline, making scenes have much more punch than they would without that history.
The plot is actually fairly interesting. The trailers only really showed a few key scenes but in reality there is a lot that the trailers don’t show. The “arena” scene that reminds a lot of people of Episode 2 is only a few minutes and is relatively unimportant. I wouldn’t be put off by that. The story is much bigger than that.
Also, kudos to the voice actors of the Tharks, primarily Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church. These are two guys with very distinct voices but I didn’t even notice it was them until looking up the cast list right now. That’s a good thing.
What doesn’t work?
I mentioned that the story revolves around two warring human nations. I got confused in the early parts of the movie about who was who and what was happening, even with the convenient red and blue clothing. There’s an outside force that’s pulling the strings and it seemed unintentional that their motives were so confusing.
And while I appreciated the length of time leading up to John’s arrival on Mars, I definitely can see a problem with pacing, as no real action happens for the first half hour or so. It builds a solid foundation but the majority of viewers may be put off by this lack of immediate action. If you can make it through, the action is pretty intense once John steps foot on the red planet.
Overall… I enjoyed John Carter a lot. When you think that this was one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction, it’s a great feeling to be able to experience that story in a way that would (hopefully) make author Edgar Rice Burroughs happy.