I had serious misgivings about seeing John Carter before I went to the theater last night. In fact, after reading the plot summary from its IMDB page to my wife, she wished me a pleasant evening by myself and stayed home. After all, a film about a Civil War veteran ending up on Mars does sound a bit ridiculous in a Cowboys & Aliens way, but John Carter actually works better than that movie, thanks to the literary foundation given to it by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from whose novel “A Princess of Mars” the film was derived.
John Carter starts off with a young Edgar Rice Burroughs being summoned by uncle John who dies before Edgar can get to him. A rich but eccentric man, John spent most of his short years between the Civil War and his death exploring — apparently for a specific reason, although no one could determine what it was. A journal left behind for Edgar’s eyes only explains what John had been doing all those years, why he became fabulously wealthy — and why the stories he told his nephew as a little boy were actually true. And it might just be that Edgar, now a young man, has a role to play in John’s adventure still.
Even after taking my seat with a healthy level of skepticism, it was impossible for me to not enjoy this film from almost the very beginning. The circumstances of John’s death gives the early sequences a 19th-century mystery feel, which then gives way to a Western, and then finally a mix of Western and space opera that works better than it sounds. The visual presentation has a similar feel at times to Thor, and at other times to Dune, while the machinery resembles more the technological spirit of 2002’s The Time Machine. Getting the nuances of the different tribes and races of Mars took a little time — the Tharks, the humanoids from the city-states of Helium and Zadonga, and the Therns, who in the film are a malevolent and potentially immortal force — but was not a large hurdle. The action is well-mixed with the necessary exposition, and the pace never feels either lethargic or forced.
Excellent performances by the cast certainly add to the success of the film. Some fans will recognize the two leads, Taylor Kitsch as John and Lynn Collins as the Mars princess Dejah Thoris, from their previous work in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where both had smaller roles and didn’t interact with each other. Kitsch carries the film well, but Collins is especially good, projecting strength, vulnerability, and passion — along with the kind of sultry exotic look that one would expect from a Burroughs story. Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church voice the main Tharks, with Morton being particularly good as Sola. Interestingly, I recognized Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy from their work on the brilliant miniseries Rome as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, respectively — and in John Carter, their roles have a similar relationship, although much more benign.
John Carter has plenty of surprises and edge-of-the-seat action all the way to the very end. It won’t win a nomination for Best Picture, but as a fun adventure and popcorn movie, it’s terrific and smarter than most, especially this time of year. Don’t be surprised at the end if you’d like another trip to Mars very soon.
John Carter is rated PG-13, with a lot of violence, some of it quite bloody (even if the blood might be another color at times) and very intense. It has no foul language or nudity — a few skimpy outfits for Collins, but nothing one wouldn’t have seen on a Xena: Warrior Princess episode. I wouldn’t take my oldest granddaughter to see it and she’s nearly 10 years old; I think it’s probably appropriate for teenagers, but I’d be leery about going any younger.
Update: A couple of points of clarification. I’ve never read the Burroughs novels, so I can’t judge how well the filmmakers adapted the source material, although I’d be curious to hear from Burroughs readers to get their reaction. Second — and I should have mentioned this in the review — I saw the 3-D version last night, which was well done but probably isn’t necessary to enjoy the movie.
Update II: I referred to Cowboys Vs Aliens in the first paragraph, but the film was called Cowboys & Aliens. Here’s my review of it.