Originally published 100 years ago in The All Story Magazine in serialized fashion over a period of months Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ first story, A Princess of Mars, launched a career than spanned decades including several more novels in what became known as the Barsoom series and the creation of a certain Lord of the Jungle you may know by the name of Tarzan.
It’s taken a century, but Hollywood finally has its first big screen adaptation of Burroughs’ tale. (For our purposes here we’re just going to ignore the existence of the 2009 straight-to-DVD version starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords.) Adapted and directed by Pixar’s Oscar winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life) John Carter breathes new life into the century-old work while still staying true to the Burroughs’ original novel.
The story opens with a stand-in for Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) discovering his uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has left his vast wealth to him following his sudden death. While going through Carter’s belongings Burroughs discovers the man’s journal which tells the tale of how a former Civil War soldier turned prospector became a hero of Mars.
Kitch is well-cast in the role of a reluctant warrior who finds himself stranded on an alien world with little chance of ever seeing home again. Discovered shortly after his arrival on Mars by the Tharks, a nomadic tribe of four-limbed green Martians, who are impressed by the man’s inhuman agility and leaping abilities (due to the planet’s lower gravity) the clan attempt to make “Virginia” (how they refer to Carter through a mistake in translation) one of their own.
The Tharks are but one example of how well Burroughs vision is realized on-screen. Despite being completely CGI the alien race are completely convincing and the interactions between the actors and their computer-animated counterparts feels far more natural than in many films of this genre.
John Carter’s life is further complicated by the arrival of Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of Mars who has fled the city of Helium from her pursuer, the conqueror Sab Than (Dominic West), to whom Deja’s father (Ciarán Hinds) has promised her hand in marriage in an attempt to save Helium from destruction.
Collins works well in the role of the skeptical princess with plans of her own. It helps that she and Kitsch have a natural chemistry on-screen, although fanboys may be disappointed that the character does appear far more clothed than how she is described in the novels and depicted in art and comic book adaptations over the years.
Carter soon find himself fleeing the Tharks with Deja and Sola (Samantha Morton) the insubordinate daughter of the Tharks leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). On their journey across Mars Carter will learn more about Deja, the war between Helium and Sab Than’s people, and the mysterious priest-like race known as Therns who are working behind-the-scenes to control Mars and are responsible for Carter’s arrival on the planet.
Before the end of our story John Carter of Earth will put the guilt and loss of his past (which is well-handled through a series of short flashbacks) behind him, embrace a new destiny, take on Sab Than and his Thern overseer Matai Shang (Mark Strong), and contemplate a future as a hero and warrior of Mars.
The movie does have some surprises, most notably the goofy sense of humor that raises its head from time to time. It wasn’t expected, but with the exception of one sequence involving Carter repeatedly falling to Earth (which I simply felt went on too long) it works well and should help keep the interest of young viewers.
John Carter may not quite be the immersive experience Avatar was, but the story is well-told and enhanced by some terrific special effects. I did feel the 3D took away from the film’s look, often blurring the intricate design of the more elaborate constructs (such as the air ships of Helium), without enhancing the storyline. Unless you just have to see it in 3D, I’d suggest saving a couple bucks at viewing the film in two-dimensions (which is how I plan to see it a second time).