Since Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars was published nearly 100 years ago his otherworldly tale story has been subsequently been reworked and riffed on by nearly every sci-fi book or movie to follow. Star Wars Dune Avatar—sift through filmmaker interviews and it’s easy to find threads tying their inspiration back to Burroughs. Which makes John Carter the big screen adaptation of Princess of Mars particularly surprising. The film’s epic presentation of Martian races colliding in battle could feel stale but instead blossoms with color imagination and fun. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo Wall-E) has a strong sense of what makes “adventure” adventurous helping John Carter encapsulate everything about a great time at the movies.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran with the entire Confederate army on his tail finds himself mysteriously transported via a magic cave (or alien technology? If you get caught up in these details John Carter may not be for you) to smack dab in the middle of a Martian desert. As Carter overcomes the planet’s gravity a physical difference that allows him to leap tall structures in a single bound (sound familiar?) he runs into one of Mars’ many races: the eight-foot tall four-armed green Tharks. As their prisoner/friend/specimen John Carter takes a back seat to the unique world of the Thark world full of clockwork architecture and airships archaic customs and political strife. The Tharks are in the midst of a 1 000 year battle with the humanoids of Zodanga led by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) who is in turn manipulated by the occasionally-invisible shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong). The Tharks have teamed up with the residents of Helium including the stunning scientist warrior Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but doom is impending and quickly the Spartacus-esque Thark fighter Tars Tarkas turns to Carter for help.
Unlike Avatar which introduced its fantastical world using the safety net of a simple archetypical story John Carter has no reservations bombarding its audience with plot and intrigue. At times the specifics of the world’s complex societies and strifes are complicated and confusing but similarly to info-heavy scripts—think the recent Michael Clayton or Margin Call or heck Shakespeare—Stanton Mark Andrew and Michael Chabon’s screenplay feels assured of its own drama confident that no matter your understanding the theatrics will sway you. The human element of John Carter exists behind even the most CG-ified alien creature and that’s what keeps us on board.
If there’s any misstep it’s in the casting of Kitsch a fully capable action hero unconvincing as survivor of the Civil War. Kitsch feels pulled from present day but John Carter needs to be a Confederate soldier in more than name. Kitsch is up to the task of ripping up white apes with giant steel blades or jumping over armies of raging Tharks but in scenes of introspection or humorous back-and-forths he loses footing. The real star is Collins as Dejah Thoris who nails the epic qualities of reciting enjoyably ridiculous Martian-speak. She stands out even in the blinding desert sun and even when decked out in over-the-top boobage costuming manages to deliver a compelling and rousing performance. Doesn’t hurt that she knows her way around a swordfight or two.
With John Carter moving at lightning speed investing in the film’s handful of characters becomes a difficult task but talented folk like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton bring zest to characters on par with James Cameron’s Avatar creations. And with such a strong background in animation it’s no surprise that Woola John Carter’s scrappy space dog sidekick is as realized and tangible as the rest of the gang. The scrappy six-legged critter adds humor to John Carter born completely out of the moment. Don’t confuse this with the Star Wars prequels—nothing cutesy or ham-fisted here.
A streamlined John Carter would have really popped but as a first live-action effort for Stanton the fill is still something to behold. With breathtaking design sweeping action and a score by Lost Star Trek and Pixar vet Michael Giacchino that finds perfect balance between Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones the film works as an immersive cinematic experience that will have you “ooo-ing” and “aaa-ing.” If you step into John Carter you’ll likely find yourself transported to another world—it beats trying to find a magic cave.