Considering the lackluster teasers and eyesores that have passed for advance posters, it’s quite the pleasant surprise that John Carter wastes no time smacking your eyeballs upside the head with full immersion in one of its many “holy shit” moments right off the bat. It’s a shootout between solar-powered flying warships from the dueling Martian cities of Helium and Zodanga, the latter of which is a massive moving platform kinda like what would have happened had Howl’s Moving Castle been designed by Baron Harkonnen (seriously, if you don’t get those references, look them up. Worth your time. Moving on). Zodangan leader Sab Thang (Dominic West) has his vehicle get caught in a sandstorm, at which point it gets boarded by mysterious bald people who materialize from the sky, led by Mark Strong’s Matai Shang…
An aside: if you read the character guide that was handed out to many of us press, it’s hard not to burst out laughing when coming across lines like “Sab Thang is the Jeddak of Zodanga,” or “Matai Shang is the Holy Hekkador of the Therns.” This kind of thing can be deadly; The Chronicles of Riddick, for one, never completely recovers from that risible introductory speech by the Necromongers about the Underverse. Not all will agree here, but it’s to John Carter‘s credit that all the made-up words are simply integrated into normal conversation rather than spoon-fed to you. Some have and will complain that it’s too complicated to figure out who’s who; no doubt we can sit back and amuse ourselves watching critics who insisted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy just needs several viewings to appreciate (or that Tree of Life is entirely comprehensible) complaining that John Carter is convoluted because it has lots of characters with weird names.
For my money, putting out a line of action figures early would have easily remedied this, but for whatever reason, kids are doomed to disappointment that nothing onscreen is available for purchase in smaller, more plastic form afterward. If you can find any of the small-scale McFarlane Prince of Persia figures and an Attack of the Clones Geonosis Arena Playset, that’s as good as it gets.
But back to Sab Thang, Jeddak of Zodanga. Matai Shang gifts him with a powerful new weapon that’s essentially a blue Witchblade crossed with an organic web-shooter and the power of a laser cannon. With this, he can become ruler of Mars, a task that isn’t as hard as it sounds because Mars is mostly dead anyway. All he has to do is take over the rival city of Helium, which is distinct from Zodanga by virtue of being non-mobile and blue.
All of the above is narrated by Willem Dafoe, who also informs us that Mars isn’t what we think we know, and that its inhabitants call it Barsoom. Later, we will identify Dafoe’s voice as emanating from a ten-foot tall green alien named Tars Tarkas, which is odd because Tars is narrating events to which he clearly wasn’t privy. It’s doubly odd when the rest of the movie is narrated by John Carter himself. But unless you’ve already seen the film, this won’t seem inconsistent till afterward.
And then we’re on earth, watching John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) send a telegram to author Edgar Rice Burroughs, his nephew in this telling. Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) rushes to see his uncle, only to find him apparently dead (yeah right, or there’d be no movie) with a journal left behind. This is where Carter’s narration takes over, and for about ten minutes we get to see what a 3D western looks like (pretty cool in the Xpand format, less so in Real-D). Carter is a Civil War vet in a bad fake beard, and hails from Virginia (yes, I know VA went blue in ’08, but it usually doesn’t, and the title joke was too obvious-yet-heretofore-unused not to make), who is searching for a magic cave of gold, but has to punch Bryan Cranston a few times in order to get there. Plus, when he does find it, he also finds one of Matai Shang’s magic bald species, the Therns, and after a brief skirmish finds himself waking up on Mars.
Rather than get thrust into the Helium/Zodanga battle right away – and for those keeping score, Helium’s people wave blue flags, while Zodanga’s wield red – Carter soon finds himself among the most sentient non-human species of the planet, the Tharks, of whom the aforementioned Willem Dafoe character Tars Tarkas is leader. An initial misunderstanding betwixt languages causes the Tharks to think Carter is named “Virginia,” which provides a cheap and always-funny laugh line, though everyone is soon speaking English thanks to Carter drinking the magical MacGuffin juice of something or other.
All right. Enough plot summary. Trust me, there’s a lot more to go. Burroughs hasn’t really been squeezed into typical movie three-act structure here – it plays out a lot more like a cliffhanger serial, or a book with chapters. It’s a bold move to get a more faithful adaptation, and a good one, but does risk the whole Lord of the Rings “too many endings” complaint from lame whiners. This may be Disney, but little is toned down – there are a whole lot of people and creatures dying onscreen, but they bleed blue, which somehow makes it family friendly in somebody’s eyes. One notable concession that would have had to be made with any studio – the characters aren’t as naked as Burroughs had them.
The humans of Mars were red-skinned in the text – here, that is achieved by giving Caucasians many red tattoos in a Celtic design style. Could be that even a casual mention of “red skin” risks being offensive, though racial subtext is in there – Carter, being the only “white” man, is thought by Barsoomians to be an ape, as those are big and pale in their land; given that the hero fought in a pro-slavery army, the irony is surely intentional when he himself is placed in chains by oppressors of another skin tone. Likewise, those who look will find populist critiques of modern government (how little it must have changed since Burroughs’ day), with the Therns pulling the strings of political power much like we imagine corporate donors do in reality, as mass casualties and eventual environmental Armageddon are the outcome they care naught about, shape-shifting constantly to distract all but the most observant.
Have you seen this done before? Yeah, there are echoes of familiar films, themselves inspired by the original books. No Star Wars fan can fail to semi-recognize terms like “jeddak” and “banth.” But you haven’t seen it all put together this way – Dafoe’s Tarkas is an instant classic, with a moral ambiguity and character arc befitting a classic heroic yarn. And the hero’s journey is not the usual, predictable simplicity of “identify the bad guy, lose a fight to him, storm the fortress, the end,” that we so often snooze through. Indeed, not every loose end is wrapped up, leaving plenty for further sequels that probably won’t happen, alas.
One misgiving: Princess Dejah Thoris ought to be so beautiful as to make John Carter drop everything to fight for her, but we have a problem here: Kitsch is even prettier than actress Lynn Collins. Collins gives Dejah a smart sexiness, but Kitsch, as tough as he can play, still looks like a fashion model, and his perfectly blow-dried hair doesn’t help. Both give fine performances, but I’m betting anyone truly bisexual picks the dude here.
That aside, John Carter is a science-fiction epic worth cheering, one where however much they spent, it all went to throw amazingly huge and awesome things onscreen in the service of a story that some are actually calling too complicated. It isn’t, but a second viewing will reward anyone who doesn’t have the capacity to remember a shit-ton of made-up words and names. Those airships in 3D, though? Gorgeous.
And so you know, dear reader, I have read three of the books, but none of them was about Carter himself, just his offspring. I liked them at the time (age 13, I think), and yet was disappointed that every one ultimately boiled down to being a love story (yes, monsters held my attention more than girls, even at 13). So maybe I’m unduly happy that this one isn’t, at heart, JUST a love story. Maybe you’ll be mad about that. Me, I love the battles. And the four-armed dudes.