Disney’s newest blockbuster release, John Carter, had a relatively lousy opening weekend, based largely on a lot of advance grumblings in the entertainment media about the movie’s bungled advertising campaign. Ignore that, though, or you’ll miss a diverting couple of hours in the dark. While slow off the mark, word-of-mouth among surprised audiences really ought to give John Carter a survival-enhancing bounce like the character experiences when transported to the low gravity of Mars – or Barsoom, as Edgar Rice Burroughs called it in his 1912 debut novel A Princess of Mars, on which the movie is primarily based.
What you’ll never get from the trailers for this swashbuckling space opera is how unexpectedly funny it is, once we get past an earnest and overlong prologue set in the Wild West. The humor is likely attributable, at least in part, to Michael Chabon’s role as script doctor; but it’s also a hallmark of director Andrew Stanton, whose previous helming credits include Best Animated Feature Oscar-winners WALL-E and Finding Nemo. The slapstick begins with the Earthman’s floundering attempts to walk across the bleak Martian landscape (shot – where else? – in Utah), and reaches full ripeness in the relationship that develops between John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
While their politely snarky repartee and one-upsmanship don’t quite reach the Beatrice-and-Benedick level, Carter and the princess (who swordfights even better than he does) will likely remind you strongly of the sarcastic byplay between Han Solo and Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie, generating erotic sparks by rubbing each other the wrong way. In fact – and this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, since George Lucas is among the many sci-fi authors and filmmakers who cite Edgar Rice Burroughs as a primary inspiration – the whole tone, pace and narrative of this space adventure reminded me of nothing so much as the original Star Wars trilogy. As such, it really ought to find a broad audience.
It does help, of course, if you’ve read any of the ERB Mars or Venus canon, which technically falls into the subset of science fiction called “planetary romance” and is regarded as having set the stage for the later sword-and-sorcery novels of Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. Ray Bradbury cited the Barsoom books as his main spark for The Martian Chronicles, and you’ll even find odd references to them in Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novels. Among the many imaginatively rendered Martian monsters in John Carter is his lovable sidekick Woola, a dinner-table-sized lizardy thing who is obsessively faithful, tenacious, swift-moving, many-legged and fatally ferocious to anyone threatening its master. Thus, although most viewers will experience Woola as charmingly doglike, fans of Discworld will immediately and delightedly take it to their hearts as a prototype for the Luggage.
Being able to trace the family trees within the field of science fiction definitely enhances the geekiness quotient in watching John Carter, but it still stands solidly on its own two feet as an adventure flick. The story is no more confusingly irrational than is standard for the genre, with the requisite amount of quasi-scientific gobbledegook about astral projection (Carter gets to Barsoom by what appears to be a sort of interplanetary fax) and the “Ninth Ray” thrown in. And even if no profound philosophical or dramatic heights are achieved, ERB’s world-building skills absolutely get their due in the high (and notoriously costly) production design.
We get a decent introduction to two of the many cultures that the author dreamed up for Barsoom (three, if you count the villainous, manipulative, world-despoiling, shapeshifting Therns, who didn’t originate on Mars). There are the Red Martians, who include Dejah Thoris’ peaceable, science-loving people of Helium as well as the warlike, imperialistic and environmentally irresponsible Zodangans. The latter are led by Sab Than (Dominic West), who wants to consolidate his rule by marrying (and offing) the princess, while the Helium folk are ruled by the princess’ grandfather Tardos Mors, played by the ubiquitous and reliable Ciarán Hinds.
But the four-armed, tusked, primitive and scrappy Tharks, a tribe of Green Martians, are much more fun company. Willem Dafoe gets a lot of good throwaway lines as their relatively enlightened and compassionate chieftain Tars Tarkas, who insists on addressing Carter as “Virginia” (his place of origin) following their awkward initial attempts to introduce themselves. Thomas Haden Church gets to chew the furniture as Tarkas’ sadistic rival Tal Hajus, and Samantha Morton adds a tonic blend of pathos and spunk as Tarkas’ rebellious daughter Sola.
While perhaps lacking the charm and nuance of facial expression of a Harrison Ford, Kitsch has the requisite buff look and arrogant carriage, tempered by a knack for knockabout physical comedy, for the reluctant-warrior role. Collins merges aristocratic bearing, scientific curiosity, passionate devotion to her people and feisty athleticism to make Dejah Thoris a passable feminist role model who declares her traditionally skimpy warrior-princess wedding outfit cheesy and doesn’t constantly need rescuing. Back on Earth, Daryl Sabara neatly handles the small but pivotal role of Carter’s mousy nephew, who grows up to be Edgar Rice Burroughs.
All in all, John Carter is an enjoyably wild ride to an improbable other world, handsomely depicted even if sometimes bumpily executed. Consider the 3-D expendable, as the movie wasn’t designed for it the way that Avatar and Hugo were. Just think of long Saturday afternoons at the movies back in the old days of goofily pulse-pounding double features and Flash Gordon serials, and you’ll know what to expect.