Review: John Carter

john carter mars one sheet
John Carter is based on a pulp science fiction story from the golden era of science fiction, written by a popular author who is now better known for his series of Tarzan the Ape Man books, a story that transplants the political tensions of Europe and the world just before World War I broke out to the Red Planet Mars.

John Carter (a rugged Taylor Kitsch) is an American Civil War soldier who has deserted his regiment to quest for gold and treasure. He’s imprisoned for deserting, but is more interested in his quest than in the needs of his country and refuses to return to his regiment. He escapes the brig and is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he finds himself in the middle of a massive worldwide war between the residents of Barsoom, as they call their planet. Because of the lower gravity, Carter finds that he has amazing, superhuman powers and can’t help but get caught up in the situation. When the beautiful Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars (Lynn Collins), entreats him to help, will he?
The film adaptation of this first book in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars, is a difficult task, with its hordes of 12-foot creatures, massive structures and barren, alien landscapes, but director Andrew Stanton and his production team have done an amazing job with John Carter (originally John Carter of Mars). Not since Star Wars can I remember feeling such delight as I watched the sweeping epic of John Carter unfold on the screen.
The story is ultimately about both Carter finding himself and a love story between him and Princess Thoris, who finds him irresistible as the strange off-planet ruffian with odd ideas and extraordinary strength, and it’s neither deep nor profound. This isn’t Tree of Life: Martian Edition. Instead, it’s a film in the sweeping action adventure vein of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, a wonderous, joyful adventure with a number of surprise twists, including an unusually satisfying surprise ending that had theatergoers laughing and clapping, clearly enjoying themselves.

In John Carter, Mars is inhabited by a complicated world of different races, including the Red Men of Zodanga and Helium, the savage wild Tharks and the all-powerful Therns, a group of wise and powerful men who manipulate the other races for their own nefarious ends. The war that Carter encounters is ostensibly between the Zodangans and the Heliumites, the former led by the ruthless Sab Than (Dominic West) and the latter by the weak Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), King of Helium and father to Princess Dejah Thoris. In fact, we learn that the Therns are secretly behind the war that’s raged for a thousand years, in the person of Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

john carter of mars publicity photo

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins)

The Therns are very reminiscent of both the Elementals from The Chronicles of Riddick and the Corporation from the more recent film The Adjustment Bureau ethereal beings who pop in and out to manipulate the situation without actually getting their hands dirty with actual warfare or violence. They’re a satisfying presence particularly for those in the audience who believe in conspiracies or at least want to believe that there are greater powers at work when a war breaks out than just territoriality or religious differences.
Still, the real star of John Carter is the scenery, the alien world that Carter must figure out without understanding of the language, or having any sense of alien cultural norms, and it’s that process of learning how things work that produces some of the most amusing scenes. In particular his continued realization of how powerful he’s become on Barsoom is reminiscent of the shared delight filmgoers experienced watching young Harry (Daniel Radcliff) find out the extent of his magical powers in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Just as impressively, John Carter manages to be a very original science fiction epic, with precious little inspired or similar to other films in the genre. In an industry where directors are rewarded for minimizing the risk of the new by weaving in cliche after cliche, it was refreshing to see the love story unfold against the background of war on a distant planet without being able to predict each and every story twist.
John Carter is also a very expensive production: the film represents a significant gamble for Disney Corporation, and the company unsurprisingly hopes it’ll be the beginning of a series of epic sci-fi adventures. I think it succeeds marvelously as a film, but there are decisions the studio has made — including dropping the “of Mars” part of the title — that are hard to understand. Whether it’s a success could come down to marketing more than the film itself, but my recommendation is for you to go and enjoy epic sci-fi like we haven’t enjoyed on the big screen in quite a few years.

3 comments on “Review: John Carter

  1. I think the strong points of the movie is the excellent effects, which is great on 3D. However, I may somehow been less satisfied with how the plot was delivered, though the ending was really good.

  2. I found this film to be one of the best to hit the screen in years, a rival to the likes of Avatar, and as you say, reminiscent of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Very much an epic, large scale visually-oriented film, but story line is refreshingly unique and engaging. I enjoyed the humorous banter, similar to what made the early Star Wars movies so much fun. I just bought the 3-D Blue Ray release and look forward to enjoying this movie over and over again!

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