John Carter will provide a good time for families going to movie theatres this weekend. There’s a lot for kids to enjoy, from swashbuckling to cute monsters, enough to titillate teens and a story that won’t be cloying to most adults. But don’t expect to see something you haven’t seen before.
The story, which was created a century ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also created Tarzan, will be familiar because it has served as an inspiration for many science fiction movies since. John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Confederate cavalry officer who’s lost his home, family and himself, accidentally stumbles into a gateway to Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants. He finds that due to the planet’s lower gravity, he’s suddenly capable of leaping hundreds of feet in the air at a time, and has his strength amplified. He’s set upon by a band of Tharks, who are the green-skinned, four-armed inhabitants of the planet. We also get a look at the other conflict between two cities of the human-like inhabitants of the planet, Zondanga, the evil city, and Helium, the good one. The two cities have been at war for 1,000 years, when the new Zondangan king has been given a weapon of immense power to turn the tide by a powerful third race, the Therns, who have been manipulating events on the planet for centuries, unseen. Carter and his abilities quickly make him stand out among the Tharks, and the two plots come together as the Heliumite princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), is attempting to escape her forced marriage to the Zondangan king, that will end the war between the two cities in favor of Zondanga, and Carter comes to her aid. Carter then searches for a way home and becomes closer to Dejah, who tries to convince him to stay and fight on her city’s behalf.
Director Andrew Stanton, whose previous work includes Finding Nemo and WALL-E for Pixar, has an obvious passion for Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories, as do his co-writers, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon. By filming many of the scenes, including a number outdoors, on location in England and the Utah desert, as opposed to in front of a green-screen, the film has a more tactile feeling than other science-fiction films of this type, making it feel more real. Collins’ performance stands out from similar roles, creating a character that goes beyond a damsel-in-distress archetype. Kitsch certainly looks the part of an action star and brings believable physicality to the action scenes. Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton, who portray the Tharks closest to John Carter, bring real emotional heft to their performances, in what could be throwaway parts.
A major issue, though, is the fact that others have already trod this territory – on film at least. While Burroughs’ stories may have inspired science-fiction movies like Star Wars and Avatar – the latter much more clearly – those films have already been made and set the bar fairly high. With John Carter, one almost can’t help but think of all that’s come before on film and wonder whether the adaptation was truly necessary. The villains of the story, a blood-thirsty Thark, voiced by Thomas Haden-Church, and Dominic West’s Sab Than, the king of Zondanga, are treated almost as afterthoughts, easily manipulated by the Thern leader, portrayed by Mark Strong. Since the villains themselves aren’t entirely compelling; the portions of the plot that deal with the confrontations between them and Carter don’t carry the weight they should. Kitsch’s performance is enough to get through the film, but it lacks a certain heft to it, particularly during the scenes on Earth, where he appears to not have aged at all despite at least 15 years elapsing between different periods in the film. Other supporting performances, including Strong and Ciaran Hinds, are given short shrift, and more could be fleshed out about the reasons for the conflict between the two cities and the history and technology of Mars. There’s also no reason the film needed to be in 3-D, especially since it was done in post-production, which always adds an element of artificiality to the effort.
The movie is enjoyable on a basic level. It looks realistic and some of the action scenes are fun, albeit brief in some spots. It will be fun for younger audiences, and there’s nothing for parents to worry about beyond things their kids might see in Super Bowl ads or family hour television. If the audience is familiar with the stories, it will be wonderful to see them come alive, especially in the hands of a fellow fan. Whether there’s a major crossover beyond that, however, is questionable.