Last Friday, I saw John Carter in a movie theatre at 12:30AM, with approximately seven other movie goers. I didn’t go because I was pumped up for the flick–to be honest, aside from a couple of billboards around the LA area, I knew very little about it. From the pictures, I honestly thought he was fighting dinosaurs not some crazy martian creatures (to my credit, I only saw the images while driving and noted that he was fighting large green things). Needless to say, like most of the domestic market, I didn’t have any expectations about the film other than it was probably going to be a huge bomb and suck. Turns out, I was only half right–lucky for me, not so lucky for Disney.
Although the film has its problems, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am still amazed it was ever made with a $250million budget. Not to say it didn’t feel like a movie with that kind of budget–it did–but, wow. If I was a creative executive at Disney, no matter how much I love the story, I don’t think I would allow for it. After all, it’s a straight forward pulp story, and those kind of tales don’t really have an audience anymore. Case in point: people went to see the last Indian Jones for nostalgia purposes and not for the love of the genre, that’s why it failed. Not because of the 4th dimensional being aspect. And, I’m sorry to anyone who feels different, but an alien religion which believes that knowledge is power isn’t all that strange or farfetched when you previously dealt with face melting artifacts, witch doctors, and immortality granting cups of water. (I’m not saying Crystal Skull was a good movie within the genre, but if aliens are you’re concern, then you aren’t paying much attention.)
So, tell me there’s a movie out there with a blockbuster budget about a civil war soldier being sent to Mars and fighting in their civil war, based on a book that’s over a hundred years old with no existing franchise or fanbase, I’ll laugh in your face. Hollywood doesn’t make those kinds of leaps of faith anymore. Right? Apparently not.
The movie begins with images of the planet Mars and the typical voice over of, “So you think you know … but you don’t!” before bring us into the middle of a Martian battle, where one of the Martian leaders (a “Jeddak”) has control of some blue, mystical force, which we will later learn can be used for great good or evil (like nuclear). Then, we are taken back to earth, where John Carter has just sent a telegram to his nephew, Edgar (“Ned” in the message, and no doubt a reference to the author of the original stories) requesting his immediate presence.
When Edgar arrives at his uncle’s estate some time later, we learn that John Carter is dead and has left everything to his nephew. Edgar is just as confused as the rest of us, when Carter’s lawyer hands him a diary which may or may not explain Carter’s wishes, as only Edgar is allowed to read it. Once he is alone, Edgar begins to read the story that is the rest of the movie: One day, living a pointless life now that his side lost the war, he accidentally comes across a Thern (an otherwise immortal alien race that attempts to control the destiny of the cosmos) in a cave in the Arizona desert and shoots him. The dying Thern reaches for a medallion, which Carter takes, repeating the Thern’s dying words which send him to Mars.
Now on Mars (“Barsoom” in the Martian tongue), he gains Golden Age Superman powers–speed and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound–and runs into the green, four-armed humanoid race of Tharks. He quickly becomes enslaved, but is a held in high regard by the Jeddak of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Along the way, he meets the beautiful and scientifically brilliant princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who has run away to avoid marrying the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) and uniting their kingdoms to end the humans’ civil war on the planet, aids the Thrak outcast Sola (voice by Samantha Moon), and matches wits with the enigmatic Therns.
Although the pacing sometimes lacks (the scene of John Carter realizing he’s on Mars is pointless, as the audience is already aware of his location thanks to the prologue) and there is nothing new or spectacular about the action, the world is still fun, filled with characters and visuals I would like to see again. The adorable dog-like creature Woola that follows John Carter around throughout the film is a scene stealer, full of personality and the right mix of ugly and cute. My favorite element, however, were the costumes and machines, which are a cool sci-fi Egypto-Roman blend that made me momentarily nostalgic for Stargate.
Speaking of the ancient element of the film, I wondered how conscious the casting of Rome‘s Caesar and Mark Antony (Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy, respectively) was as the Jeddak and Captain of Helium. Although their roles are important, they are rather brief and so the ethos of their earlier roles may be drawn upon. Additionally, I was curious why the filmmakers hid that Isis and goddess they worship on Barsoom (also Isis but pronounced “Is-is”) are the same. Considering the lack of subtly the rest of the film had, it was an odd choice to ignore.
The motives of the Thern are also a little vague, but their purpose in the plot serves.
Despite these issues, I still had a blast, as it was a decent film that didn’t try to take itself too seriously. So, if you’re looking to have your worldview changed, don’t bother. Although not quite so black and white as Avatar, the villains and plot turns are obvious. But, if you want to see a new world, filled with four armed apes, eight legged dogs, and attractive, tattooed humans, then bop on in to the theatre and make Disney feel a little better for trying.