As I entered the theater to watch Disney’s rendition of the century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel about earthling John Carter and his adventures on Mars, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. After all, the Burroughs’ first full-length effort, written in 1911, wasn’t published as a full novel until his earthbound epic “Tarzan” became famous. Burroughs subsequently wrote 10 more books in the series featuring Carter, his Martian bride Dejah Thoris and their offspring. And yet, those books are not how we remember Burroughs. To all but his most avid fans, he is the creator of “Tarzan.”
The biggest surprise Disney dished out in this film was how closely they followed the source material. Perhaps it’s because John Carter is such an obscure character to comic book fans who grew up with Batman, Superman and other more famous heroes. If few people know who John Carter is, why change things? It proves to be a wise move on Disney’s part because the tale has many elements and themes that became popular many years later.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a war-weary Confederate soldier seeking his fortune in the West. When he’s pressed back into service, he escapes and hides in a cave where he discovers a strange jewel and an alien being. He defeats the alien and, through the power of the amulet, is transported to Mars where the weaker gravity and his human anatomy make him incredibly strong and able to leap fantastic distances.
Carter must then navigate the politics of Mars and her strange inhabitants. Twelve-foot-tall Tharks – green, tribal warriors – take him hostage but form a soldier-like kinship. Carter eventually learns that factions of red Martians, who are human in appearance, are engaged in a civil war of their own. He takes up with a group of red Martians called the Heliumites, along with their beautiful princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), against the more aggressive Zodangans.
The Heliumites are represented by blue dress and banners and the Zodangans red. The tribal Tharks stay out of the affairs of the red Martians. Comparisons to the American Civil War, the current red state/blue state politics and the affairs of the “native” tribes abound.
Director Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo”) keeps the complicated story clear and the pace moving. With the exception of a few drawn-out moments of exposition, the plot moves inexorably forward to the generally satisfying conclusion. The set pieces, effects and cinematography are all top notch and the acting generally strong, although Kitsch doesn’t always look comfortable with the burden of carrying an epic.
Kitsch is in the midst of a dream year. The Canadian actor is best known to American audiences from the TV series “Friday Night Lights,” and “John Carter” will be followed by the blockbuster “Battleship” and Oliver Stone crime drama “Savages.” Judging by “John Carter,” he’ll likely be making films for some time to come.
Grade: 2 1/2 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures