A film about interplanetary travel and fashionable Martian loincloths
John Carter has swords, gold-encrusted combat gear and plenty of foreign creatures that prepare for battle in the deserts of Mars, circa 1880, but don’t be put off: The film has much more going for it than one would expect.
Directed by Andrew Stanton
With Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West
It is a far cry from the epic narrative that strings together the (first three) Star Wars films, but though the acting is sometimes wooden, and the Martian princess – a human whose eyes have been substituted by powerful blue contact lenses – in particular takes her enunciation too seriously, the film could have been much worse, had it been made by different hands.
In this case, the hands belong to Andrew Stanton, formerly a director of animation films who is better known for creating Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Stanton has forsaken the cuteness factor of his previous films, and John Carter is dreadfully dry, but the storyline actually wrestles with a few interesting developments and a fine idea that unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, does not get treated as it might have, were Stanton a more independent director.
The film opens on the vast expanses of the fourth rock from the sun, where flying machines that look like the big boats in Ben-Hur, but with wings, are crisscrossing the skies. War is being waged between various tribes, and Sab Than, leader of the Zodangans, receives a visit from three wise men who present him with a powerful tool – a blue ray – that he can wield to lay waste to his enemies and become the leader of the planet.
Back on earth, John Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (yes, he who wrote Tarzan) has just discovered that his uncle has died and rushes to his estate, where he reads a journal the globetrotting Carter (Taylor Kitsch) had kept: cue a flashback that lasts the rest of the film.
This journal tells of a trip Carter undertook years earlier in the Wild West, hot on the trail of a cave filled with gold. When he reached the cave and fought a strange man, he was teleported to Mars, known by the locals as Barsoom, and hailed as a demigod because he could bounce along, as his body was not made for the very minimal gravitational pull of the planet.
Or maybe they just like the way he looks without his shirt.
One person he meets is Dejah, princess of a tribe the Zodangans wish to capture, and of course the two fall in love. But lucky for us, this conventional thread of romance does not seriously detract from the action. Many important discoveries are made, and though Carter walks around for most of the film with a loincloth and some delicate, see-through armor across his chest, making him resemble the Tarzan his nephew would write about years later, he strikes a fine balance between the strong adventurer type and the stranger in a foreign land, clearly out of his depth, who has to fight for his survival. He looks and acts the part of a 20th-century action hero, with the necessary skill but not quite the same confidence.
The Barsoomian landscape does not offer the director much color to work with; the additions (besides the friendly, four-armed green monsters that take Carter under their wing) are at times gorgeous, even if the costume design is as boring as that of a biblical epic.
John Carter also evinces some fine ideas regarding the actual teleportation of a human between earth and Mars – though this insight comes almost as a throw-away line – by which we learn that one does not travel between the planets but rather a copy is made so the body stays behind while soul and body are alive elsewhere. This fact could have provided attention-grabbing situations, but we do not get to see any of them.
Stanton’s previous experience directing small animated animals is an advantage when it comes to directing big animated animals – in particular, the bond formed between Carter and the loveable and overweight but supersonic pet called Woola.
John Carter also has its moments of romantic lunacy, staged in a way that makes it difficult to know whether the director is serious or not, and some fight scenes are resolved surprisingly quickly, but a great deal of the film’s success lies in its determination to present a solid story.
Powerful flashbacks, the production’s bold sense of mythology and the subtle similarities to Star Wars characters like Jabba the Hutt make it possible for John Carter to rise above other CGI-heavy films that appropriate Greek and Roman history for the sake of entertainment.
There is just more fun to be had on Mars.