I was really ambivalent about whether I wanted to see this movie, but since my only other choice was A Thousand Words, picking this week’s film wasn’t difficult. The reason I wasn’t eager to see John Carter is that it’s based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that was written at a time when we had a much higher tolerance for ridiculous made up science fiction names and climactic sword battles. But to us now, John Carter is just more of the same:
A Victorian-era ex-cavalry soldier is accidentally transported to Mars and falls in love with its princess, sucking him into a civil war between four factions of Martians.
Even just the word Martians is now goofy, mostly because we’ve sent rovers to Mars and not seen anything more interesting than red rocks and old Soviet space junk, so John Carter is automatically at a disadvantage. Fortunately, it’s aware of that fact and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which actually makes it pretty fun to watch.
In the original novel Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs pretends that the book is a publication of a diary that was passed on to him by the real John Carter. For the film version, they use a neat framing device where Burroughs appears as Ned (Daryl Sabara) the young nephew of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who suddenly inherits his uncle’s fortune and dead body, which is mysteriously locked in a vault that can only be opened from the inside. John has left secret diaries especially for Ned, and as he begins to read we switch to the story of John Carter.
Dear Diary: it was long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
As a character, John Carter has nothing driving him except for his desire not to do anything worthwhile. His goal is to claim a cave full of gold and then… be rich. He doesn’t want to fight against the Apaches in the Arizona territory and once he’s accidentally transported to Mars, which is called Barsoom by the Martians, he doesn’t want to fight their wars either. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all anyone wants from him, because he has super jumping and punching powers by dint of being from a planet with more gravity.
The jumping power would be lame if it didn’t make a lot of sense.
Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), the leader of the tribe of six-armed Martians that found John Carter in the desert, wants him to crush the other tribes and his annoying rival for tribal leadership. But all John Carter wants to do is go home and be a rich hermit.
A tiny rich hermit.
Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), on the other hand, has a very clear goal. As the Princess of Helium, the city of “good” (read: blue-clothed) humanoid Martians, she wants to discover the secret of the 9th ray (read: blue laser energy) and use it to bring back water and greenery to their dying world. Unfortunately Sab Than (Dominic West), the leader of the evil red-clothed city of Zodanga, is the only one who has blue lasers because Matai Shang (Mark Strong), a representative of a secret race of technologically advanced alien meddlers, has decided he should have it.
MATAI SHANG: You see, we picked you because you’re a massive douchebag.
SAB THAN: Are you sure it wasn’t because of my one exposed nipple?
In the end, I guess blue lasers were no match for some rabbit ears and a Hulk fist.
Deja Thoris then hits on the brilliant idea of having John Carter defeat her douchebag fiancé for her, which of course he’s not keen on, but she becomes his love interest anyway, because hey, she’s pretty and she’s got a sword.
Dammit, you’re gonna make me care about stuff again, aren’t you?
Since everyone wants something from John Carter and John Carter wants to not help anyone, the only way they can get him to do anything is by telling him that whatever it is they want him to do is how he’s supposed to get back to Earth. This makes the plot a bit vague and confusing sometimes, especially since there are four different Martian interest groups clashing over poor John and they keep using made up science fiction words like everyone’s just supposed to know what they mean.
SHE SAYS: We must defeat the Therns and harness the 9th Ray to connect Barsoom and Jasoom!
WE HEAR: Blah blah blah you have to do what I say.
I minded these flaws far less than I probably should have, mostly because John Carter is so funny. John has a huge alien dog thing named Woola who runs like The Flash and follows him everywhere. Tars Tarkas and his pals keep calling John “Virginia” because they couldn’t tell which part was his name and which part was his home when he introduced himself, and there are about a million plane crashes in the film because none of the characters have that annoying ability to jump in an unfamiliar craft and pilot it perfectly.
Angry puppy doesn’t WANT to ride in another airplane!
So while I’m not eager to rush out and read through all of Burroughs’s Barsoom novels, I don’t regret spending two hours watching John Carter. I was worried it would turn out to be a space-based version of The Immortals, but while there are a lot of loin cloths and swords, John Carter is similar in tone to The Mummy and similar in plot to Stargate, which are both movies that I like a lot. If you’re into irreverent science fiction and/or fantasy, you’ll probably like John Carter too.