I went to see John Carter with some trepidation, having heard bad press and not having gotten a very good vibe from the previews. I went nonetheless in part because when I was 12 or 13 I went through a very serious Edgar Rice Burroughs phase. I read all 25 Tarzan books, all 10 Mars (John Carter) books, the Pellucidar series and a handful of others. These books were red meat for a 12-year-old boy, especially when adorned with cover art by fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. At any rate, I have a nostalgic fondness for those books and was excited to see the first installment brought to the big screen. My attitude toward the movie may be colored by those boyhood memories. While there is a healthy dose of silliness, John Carter is quite entertaining popcorn fare. Given its hefty budget (rumored to be north of $200 million) a sequel may not be forthcoming, but I hope I’m wrong.
The movie throws in some extra plot elements to help explain how John Carter, a former member of the Confederate Cavalry, ends up on Mars, but the screenplay by Andrew Stanton (who directed), Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon cleverly handles what was essentially a mystical transport in Burroughs’ book, particularly at the end of the movie. (Stanton and Chabon, by the way, are my age. I cannot help but suspect they had a similar experience with the books as I did thanks to their re-release (Frazetta-ized) in the mid-seventies.) The movie is less clever in explaining what interest the apparently malevolent (but professedly indifferent) Therns (immortals meddling in the affairs of Mars and men) have in John Carter and his involvement in a Martian civil war.
The situation on Mars is not made entirely clear by the movie either. The planet is populated by “red men” who inhabit (apparently) only two cities: Helium and Zodanga. There is also a civilization of Tharks: 10-foot-tall green people with four arms and large tusks whose young hatch from eggs. (In the books, so do the children of the buxom, naked, and beautiful women of Helium, but the movie spares us this oddity of Martian reproduction.) Aside from this handful of densely populated cities, Mars (or “Barsoom” in Barsoomian) looks remarkably like the real Mars, which is to say a barren wasteland. One wonders what the Martians eat, where they get their power, how they build their elaborate and fragile airships, and why there aren’t any living things smaller than a lion. But, for the most part, one doesn’t wonder these things until after one has left the movie theater. That is, while both Burroughs’ original story and Stanton’s adaptation have lots of nonsense, it’s harmless nonsense and the fast-paced fantasy action keeps us happily distracted for the duration of the movie.
Carter is able to be a successful fighter on Mars due to muscles and bones grown in Earth’s stronger gravitational field. Here as throughout the movie, things are a tad exaggerated. While Mars’s gravitational acceleration is about 1/3 that of the Earth, Carter is able to leap hundreds of feet. Had I been a science consultant I would not have complained about that particular liberty (this is, after all, a fantasy movie, not a science fiction movie), but I would have given them a nifty idea to get another dramatic element out of Mars’s two moons and add a bit of orbital realism as a bonus.
Taylor Kitsch gives Carter a rather sullen demeanor, but the movie has fun with his stubbornness. Stanton manages to infuse some much-needed humor here and there, including a self-deprecating nod at the ironic similarities of the story to so many Disney animated movies about princesses. Lynn Collins plays the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, though, in an update from the book for 21st century norms, she is first introduced to us in the movie as a scientist who is on the verge of a major breakthrough in magical Martian technology. Collins gives what Burroughs described as “the incomparable Dejah Thoris” reasonable heft: she is not merely a damsel in distress. She is a smart, strong and brave damsel in distress.
Most reviews I’ve read cannot resist mentioning its rumored price tag. But I paid a normal ticket price and got my money’s worth.
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