John Carter

John Carter (2012) (IMAX 3D)
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directed by Andrew Stanton

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

John Carter combines elements from the first two books of Burroughs’ Mars series with a bunch of new material. It keeps the basic story of how Confederate officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), mining for gold in the Arizona territory after the Civil War, finds himself magically transported to Mars, known as Barsoom to its natives. One of the major improvements the film makes to the story is an explanation of exactly how Carter travels between Earth and Mars, which was never adequately explained in the books. In fact, this becomes a major plot point driving much of the action in the film.

Carter’s Earth muscles and anatomy enables him to leap great distances and do other feats of strength. These abilities help him escape the many fights and tight scrapes he gets into. The beings of Barsoom are roughly divided into two races: the six-limbed warrior Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the red-skinned “humans” of Helium and Zodanga who are at war with each other.

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of Helium, has been betrothed to Sab Than (Dominic West) of Zodanga to end the war. However, Sab Than is being manipulated by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), and his shape-shifting, immortal race of Therns. These political machinations are consistent with what Burroughs wrote, although in a much different form. It provides consistent and plausible motivations for the characters. You do have to pay attention, though, or you’ll get lost in the details, but it is a good thing to have something besides mindless battles in a movie like this.

A huge improvement is that Dejah Thoris is a much more nuanced and important character, not just the damsel in distress she is in the books. Here she is not only a beautiful princess, but a renowned scientist and quite handy with a sword. Collins does an excellent job giving strength and dignity to her role.

The special effects are well done, as you would expect from a director who comes from an animation background. There were a couple of traveling matte shots that were slightly off, but for the most part all of the exotic Martians looked and moved realistically. We got to see not only Tharks, but white apes, banths, thoats, and Woola, John Carter’s faithful calot.

Some liberties were taken with Burroughs’ descriptions. For example, John Carter is described as having short hair, and in the movie he has long hair. Kitsch is well muscled, but no real person could ever be as musclebound as Frank Frazetta or other favorite Burroughs’ artists have portrayed him. The red Martians (as well as the Tharks) are oviparous (reproducing by laying eggs), yet Dejah has a belly button. These are really minor quibbles, though. The vast majority of changes, such as Carter’s motivation for not wanting to fight Apaches (or Tharks or Zodangans), are logical improvements.

If there is anything to gripe about, it is the first 20 minutes on Earth which are a little slow getting things set up for Carter’s journey to Mars. Those who have not read the books may also be a bit confused about the importance of the relationship of Sola (Samantha Morton) to Tars Tarkas, which is hastily revealed early in the film rather than dramatically at the end of A Princess of Mars. I also think that the 3D did not add much to the film.

The marketing campaign did not do justice to the film. This is an intelligent, action-packed adventure. Whether you are a Burroughs fan or just want to see an entertaining movie, go see it!

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