Based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter is a difficult movie to sum up. Never having read the book, I can tell it must be more complex than the filmmakers bargained for. There were questions left unanswered and intricate back stories that were only hinted at in the film. Despite that, the storytelling settles into itself after the first quarter of the movie, making John Carter an engaging film that displays a surprisingly seamless digital world.
John Carter tells the story of a Virginia man who served in the Civil War and who finds himself transported to a war-torn Mars, where factions of humans and aliens vie for his help. Suddenly, Carter is a champion who can literally leap tall buildings in a single bound (thanks to low Martian gravity and lighter bone density than the other humanoids). While trying to survive and get back to Earth, he saves a scantily clad Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, and sort of befriends an alien race—all while struggling through flashbacks of his post-Civil War, outlaw life. Throughout the story, god-like humanoids called Thurn briefly point out that they fix the destiny of the solar system. Sound tricky? It is. This is all interwoven with a complex setup involving a mysterious death, a mousy heir to a fortune and a very brief history of the peoples and conflicts of Mars. Like a Western, the plot is slow to begin but sprawling once the cowboys and Indians are introduced.
The film is a sci-fi action-adventure with epic battles, romance and humor—much like George Lucas’ Star Wars films, which Burroughs' John Carter of Mars is said to have influenced. The film’s budget was approximately $250 million, which shows in the massive effects and sweeping vistas of the red planet. I had my doubts as to how many green-screen moments I would notice, but the real beauty of John Carter is in the world it creates. Mars’ landscapes were gritty deserts that, at times, felt more like a National Geographic special than a movie. CG aliens were believable, and it never felt like human characters were talking to a tennis ball on a stick. Maybe this was because Pixar alum Andrew Stanton directed this meticulously crafted digital film.
Another refreshing attribute of John Carter is that it doesn’t rely on major star power to bring powerful characters to life. Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch carries the film as Carter, though not without the help of a very truncated wardrobe (this is where the film saved big bucks). Carter grew into a complex hero as the Martian sun bronzed his abs and emblazoned his spirit. Lynn Collins, who plays Dejah Thoris, was just as plucky and nearly naked. Rounding out the cast, Willem Dafoe plays the honorable alien clan leader, Tars Tarkas, and Thomas Haden Church is the alien villain Tal Hajus.
Something about this film left me wanting more from the story—maybe it was the ending that seemed to wrap up all too quickly or the vaguely developed villains, the Thurn. What ultimately won me over was the neat package of action, characters and sci-fi elements.
The story behind John Carter is deeper than it appears to be at the onset of the film. Cheesy dialogue gives way to intriguing plot twists, and the big, green Martians have personalities beyond the pixels. With the power of Disney moviemaking behind it, John Carter was given the scope Burroughs’ story deserved, if not all the depth he authored.
Christie Hudon is a freelance author and editor. She also teaches creative writing to middle school students. If you enjoy her musings, you can visit her blog at Quillbook.wordpress.com.