Pulp space opera at its finest, John Carter is this year’s first truly fun piece of escapist filmmaking, arriving just in time to liven up a sluggish winter box office. Based on the 1912 novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan), the movie does a fair but choppy job of adapting the dated, old-fashioned source material without chucking out too much of it or diluting its sense of wonder.
Taylor Kitsch (Battleship) stars in the titular role, that of an embittered ex-Confederate soldier seeking gold in the Arizona badlands. On the run from the U.S. Army and Apaches, he seeks shelter in a cave and briefly finds his gold before suddenly finding himself on the surface of Mars — or Barsoom, as the locals call it.
He’s quickly acquired by the native Tharks, tall, gangly, four-armed, green warrior savages with tusk, led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Tharks are on the sidelines of a civil war between to warring humanoid city states: Helium, led by the benevolent Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) whose scientist daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is trying to find a way to save their dying world; and Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), a warlord with notions of building an empire who is really the puppet of the mysterious Therns, led by Matai Shang (perennial villain Mark Strong).
It plays out like Flash Gordon meets Dune with a little Dances With Wolves thrown in, but mostly in a good way. Audiences unfamiliar with the original story may dismiss it as a Star Wars knock-off. Ironically, the DNA of Burroughs’ tales of the Red Planet can be found not only in George Lucas’ franchise, but everything from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s to Avatar and half the comic book superheroes in existence. Carter, however, has toiled in relative obscurity up to this point. The result is a movie that is as strangely familiar as it is exotic.
It’s a flair for the exotic that gives John Carter the boost needed to make it stand out. Director Andrew Stanton honed his chops in various capacities on the animated Pixar productions Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and the Toy Story trilogy. With John Carter, his live-action debut, he continues to show a knack for creating impressively realized fantasy worlds, depicting Barsoom as an apocalyptic wasteland punctuated by ruined cities populated by the warlike Tharks in contrast with the lofty, glittering, paradisiacal Helium and grungy Zodanga, itself a mobile city on mechanical legs.
The only time Stanton only really misses a beat is in the pacing. The action sequences aren’t as cleanly edited as they should be and their coherence suffers for it. The story is almost as episodic and circuitous as Burroughs’ novel and, at about 130 minutes, it’s about half an hour longer than it needs to be.
The large ensemble cast helps spark some energy. Collins is fortunately saddled with an updated version of Dejah Thoris that paints her as far more than a damsel in stress. Strong does the medium-cool unflappable villain thing, and West is at his smug, scummy best. Hinds his joined by his former Rome castmates Polly Walker (as a scheming Thark) and James Purefoy as an Errol Flynn-esque Heliumite officer. Also appearing are Bryan Cranston as a cavalry captain; Daryl Sabara as Carter’s earthbound nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (a device carried over from the novel); and Samantha Morton and Thomas Hayden-Church, both lending their voices to Tharks.
As for Kitsch, he proves himself to be a strong (if occasionally tepid) leading man though he’s sometimes overwhelmed by the movie’s busyness. While Dejah and Tars Tarkas both want Carter to take up their respective causes, this soldier who is done with fighting is only interested into returning home even though it holds nothing for him. Stanton and screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon wisely spice up the hero — who was a run-of-the-mill ideal romantic hero in Burroughs’ series of novels — by giving him just enough emotional baggage, in the form of a personal tragedy, to make him a relatable human being before elevating him to the status of savior from another world.