Renegade Virginian Civil War vet John Carter (Kitsch) finds himself mysteriously transported from a cave in Arizona, 1868, to the planet of Barsoom — Mars — where he unexpectedly tips the balance of a war between the Zodangans and the Heliumites by rescuing Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris (Collins) — earning the enmity of the sinister Matai Shang (Strong).
This adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp cosmic opera A Princess Of Mars has been almost a century in the making. In the meantime, eager purveyors of science-fiction have picked and pulled at Burroughs’ creation, so much so that virtually every scrap has been thrown into the slow cooker of popular culture and long since served up as stock. From those lovably creaky old Flash Gordon serials, to Superman, to Star Wars, to Dune, to The Matrix, to Avatar, the childhoods and nerdhoods of generations have succoured their collective imagination with Carter incarnations. And yet the original has been, it’s fair to say, largely forgotten, certainly not even fractionally as famous as his Luke and Supes-shaped spiritual progeny.
Which puts the movie in the unique and not entirely comfortable position of feeling both incredibly familiar and oddly novel. Like Avatar, the hokey plot concerns a capable, manly Earthling loving, fighting and learning from the restless natives. Yet here that Earthling is a 19th century American Civil War veteran-turned-gnarly prospector, “projected” into a world that, true to Burroughs, is a mirror of Carter’s own time rather than ours.
So where James Cameron’s supernature-loving, braid-tugging Na’vi were threatened by environmentally rapacious Terrans, here the prime tribes of Barsoom are locked in their own civil war — one side even wears blue — with another (the green, gangling Tharks) caught in the middle. From gunslinging in the Wild West to sword-swinging on the fourth rock from the sun, myth layers on myth. (But then, that itself sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Barsoom is hardly a world away from Tatooine…)
Carter’s chaperone at this long-overdue party is a director who represents both a safe pair of hands and a considerable risk. While it features a significantly motion-captured alien cast, this is Pixar champion Andrew Stanton’s first foray into live action. It’s a greater challenge than, say, Andrew Adamson faced when making The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. And, as an adaptation, an adventure, and a world-building exercise, Stanton’s achievement stands as the better of the two by far.
Whether it’s the elegant, dragonfly-winged airships, the mobile, earth-churning capital of the bad-guy Zodangans, the six-limbed, tusky Tharks, or the hulking “white apes” (albino Kongs with a few extra fists and rancor faces), there is barely a moment of John Carter that fails to visually impress. Technically, it’s Avatar’s equal.
And Stanton scores highly where you may have imagined he’d most obviously falter: with the (so to speak) humans. Taylor Kitsch has much to prove this year, and he’s passed his first test in the multiplex arena. He displays a chiselled charisma that serves him well, especially in his exchanges with Lynn Collins. Her polymath princess is both scientist and warrior as well as space-bikini-wearing hottie, and Collins convinces on all counts (even when uttering such doozies as, “This entire structure runs on ninth-ray isolates!”), while inevitably going weak-kneed over the nipple-baring alien dude who, through the empowering nature of the Barsoomian atmosphere, is capable of some truly astounding thrusts.
Where the film stumbles, though, is with its action. It’s hard to pinpoint a standout set-piece, and every battle feels rushed. Unlike a Cameron or Peter Jackson, Stanton neglects to ramp it up and deliver the beats, as if he’s afraid too much smash-bang will spoil the story. We could easily have lived without the pre-credits exposition, or the subplot involving J. C.’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (yeah, really), back on Earth, and seen that time given to the climactic battle. The struggle for a planet’s destiny should really feel a little less like a Mos Eisley riot.
Stanton has built a fantastic world, but the action is unmemorable. Still, just about every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero adventure you ever loved is in here somewhere.