John Carter

132 minutes
Director: Andrew Stanton
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and some other people.

I Claim this Cinema for Mars!

I was fourteen when I first read Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. It was dated science fiction even then, in 1984, and I don't think that it could have been considered proper science fiction even in 1912, when it was first serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story. But I was hooked nonetheless. It was more truly science fantasy, in which the tropes of science fiction, such as airships, alien worlds, and ray guns, coexist with swords and sorcery. Everything about A Princess of Mars was thrilling. It was packed with all the things that an adventure should have: stalwart heroes, noble and savage aliens, deadly enemies, lost cities, and beautiful princesses. I was not alone in my fandom - astronomer Carl Sagan also enjoyed A Princess of Mars. No, seriously, you can look it up!

Nonetheless, it took a long time for Burroughs' tales of Barsoom - that's the Martian name for Mars - to make it to the silver screen. Tarzan, another of Burroughs' characters, saw cinematic fame come much more rapidly, but the main character of the Martian tales, brave John Carter, was a purely literary creation for a century. Perhaps it was the sheer strangeness of the milieu, perhaps it was just too difficult before the advent of computer graphics to do justice to the myriad creatures that populate Barsoom, that caused the story to languish for so many decades, unfilmed.

Now the wait is over. Disney has just released John Carter, a science fiction extravaganza aimed at just about everyone. The film's eponymous stalwart hero, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a dejected former Confederate cavalryman with a serious attitude problem. While prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory, he is sought out by the U.S. Cavalry (the Seventh Cavalry, no less) for his help in fighting the Apaches. He refuses, and is imprisoned, but escapes. While fleeing from the cavalry and running from the Apaches, he hides in a cave. An oddly-dressed man appears, there is a scuffle, and moments later John Carter awakes on Barsoom. It will take him just a little while to figure out that he is not in Arizona Territory anymore. One major clue is the tusked, fifteen-foot tall, four-armed green dude that he meets named Tars Tarkas, the film's noble and savage alien. Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) is a farsighted and relatively friendly Green Martian chieftain, especially when compared to his nastier Thark tribesmen who shoot their own unhatched eggs for laziness because they take too long to hatch. He befriends John Carter, and eventually allows him to escape from the Thark's tribal encampment.

Once free, Carter makes his way across the face of Barsoom with his loyal kind-of, sort-of dog-like pet named Woola, a compassionate Green Martian woman named Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), and the lovely, raven-tressed, blue-eyed, pilates-toned Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). You see, while Carter wants to get home, Dejah, princess of Helium, wants John Carter to help protect her city from the depredations of the deadly enemy Sab Than (Dominic West), ruler of the ugly, clanking, moving city of Zodanga. Than has been given a superweapon of sorts by the mysterious Therns, who seek to aid him in conquering all of Barsoom. Helium, though populated by valiant warriors such as its jeddak, or king, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and general, Kantos Kan (James Purefroy), have no answers to Sab Than's devastating, Thern-provided death ray. So Jeddak Mors decides that it is in the best interest of Helium that his daughter Dejah marry the creepy Sab Than, and so bring peace to Barsoom.

Do you think that there is even a chance that John Carter is going to let that wedding go ahead? Do you think that Tars Tarkas will have nothing to do with helping John Carter knock the stuffing out of the Zodangans and ending their imperial designs on all of Barsoom? Do you think that Helium and Zodanga will resolve their differences peacefully? Do you think that John Carter and Dejah Thoris are not going to get hitched by the end of the movie? If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, then John Carter is not for you. You also might want to consider getting out of the house once in a while. But for the rest of us, who like thrills with our popcorn, John Carter is tough to beat.

Oh sure, the plot can be flimsy. The motivation of the Therns, led by the evil Matai Shang (Mark Strong), for seeking the unification of Barsoom is never really explained. The Therns seem to exist to manage the ecological collapse of worlds, and then move on. Mars is a dying planet, and the implication is that one day, humans will wreck Earth just as Mars itself has been damaged, and the Therns will then take it over. But why they decide that the immature dolt Sab Than is a good candidate for world ruler is impossible to fathom.

Raise your hand if you really care. No, I didn't think so. John Carter is rollicking fun, and you should not waste too much time trying to make it all hang together in your head. Save that for Downton Abbey. Go see John Carter, and buy popcorn.


No comments: