A few weeks from now we’ll find ourselves knee-deep in the summer blockbuster season, inundated by a gaggle of loud, bright, overdone action movies. It seems like every year these big studio barn-burners appeal to the lowest common denominator, shortchanging plot and character at the expense of cheap special-effect thrills. But in early spring, movie lovers get a chance to treat themselves to a different breed of sci-fi action film — Disney’s John Carter.
I’ve already written about the background of John Carter and the hundred-year journey from the novel’s original publication to the movie’s release. Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first John Carter novel in serialized form in 1911, a few years before the Tarzan novels which earned Burroughs his fame.
John Carter‘s story begins when Carter (Taylor Kitsch) sends his nephew, a young Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), a telegram summoning him for a visit. When Burroughs arrives, Carter has died and left him his estate, including his valuable collection of artifacts from throughout the world, his unusual tomb, and the secretive journal of his adventures.
As Burroughs delves into the journal, Carter’s tale unfolds in flashbacks. In the Old West, the enigmatic Carter, a captain in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, searches Arizona Territory for a cave of gold. When Carter and an Army officer find themselves caught in the crossfire of a skirmish between Apaches and American soldiers, they hide in a cave. Once inside, Carter discovers unusual markings and begins exploring. He sees a strange-looking man in the cave, shoots him, and steals his medallion. The next thing Carter knows, he is on Mars.
On Mars (or Barsoom, as the people call it), Carter discovers that the difference between Earth’s gravity and Mars’s allows him to leap great distances. He encounters the Tharks, a race of tall, lanky green creatures with four arms and tusks growing out of their faces. The Tharks treat him as half prisoner and half freak show.
After they witness a battle between the human-like citizens of two city-states, Helium and Zodanga, the Tharks learn of Carter’s ability to jump high and to fight, and they bestow on him the honor of being their “right hands.” Carter rescues Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the princess of Helium, and she convinces him to help the people of Helium battle Sab Than, the ruler of Zodanga (Dominic West), as well as the shape-shifting, mystical Therns. They fall in love, and Carter convinces the Tharks to unite with the people of Helium to defeat Sab Than and the Therns.
John Carter conveys a different vibe from most films of its kind. There’s an old-fashioned sensibility about it — the
owner of the company I work for said the movie has sort of a Jules Verne feel to it, and that’s an apt description. Many of the battle scenes and costumes resemble Spartacus or Ben Hur more than Star Wars, while the machinery and Barsoomian transports have a steampunk style. The mythology of Barsoom also brings to mind classical lore.
At the same time, John Carter contains modern elements. Dejah Thoris is a one-of-a-kind heroine — not only is she a warrior princess, but she’s also an unabashed science nerd.
The film surprises with its humor. Carter’s quick-witted one liners contrast to the dour portraits we often see of Civil War heroes, and the scene where he learns to master-jump in Mars’s gravity produces belly laughs. And, one of my favorite jokes, a Thern studying Carter identifies him as a Southerner after hearing him say, “Yes sir.”
These days, it’s hard to find a movie that doesn’t have some sort of political — read, Marxist — agenda. Seems like almost every film these days offers up some fable about climate change or an anti-war screed. John Carter avoid this. If it has a message of any kind, it’s “fight for what you believe in.” John Carter calls himself a man without a cause in the first half but he turns into a great warrior and uniter of tribes for the cause of preserving the freedom of Barsoom.
Director-writer Andrew Stanton recreates Burroughs’ vision of life on Barsoom in the 1860s, and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon bring the characters to life. The special effects maintain the same old-fashioned feel as the rest of the film yet still thrill.
With as much excitement and fun as John Carter provides, several flaws mar the film: slow pacing in some spots, while earlier the narrative jumped so fast I lost track. The characters are stock types, but I guess that’s as much a flaw of Burroughs’ as the screenwriters’ fault. Michael Giacchino‘s score tried too hard; I expected better from the award-winning composer of Lost.
Late in John Carter, nearly defeated Thark leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), speaks with Carter as theylanguish in chains, courtesy of a challenge to Tarkas’ throne. He admits to Carter that the man from Earth restored his faith in new ideas and dreams. He tells Carter:
When I saw you, I believed it was a sign — that something new can come into this world.
In a way, that’s what John Carter is — an escape from the modern science fiction/action blockbuster, a throwback to old-fashioned films with unambiguous heroes and villains.