John Carter is the result of over 80 years of trying to get from book to film. Published in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs (better known for creating Tarzan) it is the story about a Civil War veteran that is accidentally transported to Mars. Only instead of dying from asphyxiation or hypothermia, he ends up on a dying world that is the cradle of one-great civilizations. It is a forerunner in the field of science fiction, and credited as the creator of the Planetary Romance genre. Although the books have not retained their popularity, or even experienced a resurgence like others, they still hold a special place in history.
Given the history of the source material, and the length of time since the original had been released, there was more than a little uncertainty about producing a film. Prior to John Carter the only other release was a direct-to-video flop that starred Traci Lords in the main female role. Still with the mighty might of Disney and Pixar behind this film it seemed like a ready hit. Unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. With very uneven critical reviews, and disappointing but respectable ticket sales, John Carter seems likely to follow in the mold of Superman Returns, as a film with such a large budget that even making 350 million dollars is considered a failure. Which is a real shame because there is a lot to like about the pulp epic.
We start with a brief glimpse of fantasy Mars, called Barsoom in the film, and then a slice of the end with Carter and his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yes, that is true to the book. Burroughs used himself as narrator and character in the story who was relating Carter’s stories. Then the majority of the film is from the diary that Carter left for his nephew that relates his wild story. The narrative is enjoyable, especially for those that read the books, but could potentially be confusing to people who prefer their action epics to be splayed across the screen like something from Hustler. Personally I have no problem with a movie that unfolds instead of slamming my face. While the story does diverge from the book, it does so in a clever way that displays the writers (there was more than one) knowledge of the source material. Instead the first movie melds elements of the first three books, and while the ending is certainly left open for a sequel, it also provides a satisfyingly crunchy ending.
Director Andrew Stanton also was the lead writer, and with credits from WALL-E and Finding Nemo he has talent. However his familiarity with animated features does seem to overshadow his ability to create intimacy with living actors. While epic and awesome, John Carter does falter a bit on delivering the personal touch. That also could have something to do with the source material, it was written over a hundred years ago and lacks many of the conventions that are so common in today’s works that their absence is seen as lack of quality. Many of the period aspects are diminished or removed; such as Carter’s protectiveness of Dejah Thoris (the female lead), their love at first sight, and the fact that in the books the Indians (Native Americans for those of you who are so PC that you can’t even remember how that term was once used) are unabashedly the enemy. Despite this minor hiccups, the movie succeeds in being epic and fun.
Lead actors Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins deserve special mention here, particularly Kitsch. They had to interact with a lot of CGI and try to invest those interactions with emotional gravity. Furthermore their personal chemistry was very effective, as they are able to convey interest and even falling in love in the spaces of a few short glances. Kitsch, who played Gambit well, if briefly in the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is perfect for the role of Carter. From his subdued southern manners to always being ready for a fight, this movie nailed Carter. Collins also does well as Dejah Thoris, who in the books is described as the most beautiful woman in two worlds. Naturally a beautiful woman, the movie does well at enhancing that, and also adds to her character in the form of scientific knowledge. While that was downplayed in the original, it does make her more interesting and important in this film.
Many critics took the opportunity to take a poke at the seemingly invincible Disney and Pixar by bashing this film mercilessly. The two most prevalent arguments were that John Carter is boring and unoriginal. Out of many other reviews, I only found one that ever acknowledged the fact that this story predates almost any other science fiction or sword-and-sandal epic by decades. Is it inspirational, yes. Unoriginal, absolutely not. As for the charge of being boring, that is very much to personal taste, but I enjoyed the film in its entirety. Epic and fun, clever and playful, but most of all beautiful, John Carter is a throwback to film as spectacle. Indulge your inner Roman and go see this. The part about following up with a large meal and an orgy is optional.