I’ve never read any books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. So, despite never having heard of A Princess of Mars, or any of the other books about John Carter, I was attracted to the idea of John Carter. This was a completely unknown story (to me), set in space, but not related to either Star Wars or the Alien series, and being marketed by Disney. I enjoyed the trailer, so looked forward to seeing it, despite all the rumors of overspending and “flops”. I’ve heard people say it was dull and that it has no storyline. So, I went to see it, anyway. [Spoilers ahead!]
What is everyone complaining about? I found the movie to be delightful. Any difficulty with following the initial story would just come from unfamiliarity. Most viewers are completely unfamiliar with the tale, or the back story, so the director had to insert some sort of prologue, to help us figure out what’s going on. But though I didn’t catch all the names, it didn’t take me long to orient myself. Besides, some of the first characters you meet, Sab Than and Matai Shang, are played by Dominic West and Mark Strong. I’m willing to follow almost any storyline, with these guys acting.
Some of you will remember Dominic West from Centurion and 300, but my favorite memories of him are from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he starred alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Kline, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, and many others. He held his own, and I figure if he can handle Shakespeare, he can handle anything.
From the brief intro to the wars on Barsoom (Mars), the tale takes us to Earth, where John Carter is being followed by a strange man, sends an urgent telegram, and then we find that he’s dead. His nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, has been left all of Carter’s wealth, as well as Carter’s diary. As soon as the lawyer leaves, the young, awkward-looking Burroughs begins to read the diary, as Carter’s voice says that “it all began thirteen years ago…”.
John Carter is a gold miner, trying to escape his past, but some of the U.S. Cavalry are conscripting him to ride for them, and he shows himself to be completely belligerent about it. After bloodying numerous members of the military, flinging himself out of windows, and getting increasingly bloody, himself, he tricks the guard, and escapes. An Apache showdown occurs, and in the losing battle, he rescues the wounded Captain that was originally persecuting him to join up.
They ride into the hills and take shelter in a cave, where the Apaches shy away from the strange symbols written there. A strange man appears out of nowhere, startling Carter, and attempting to kill him. In the scuffle, the stranger dies, and Carter picks up his glowing blue medallion… and is transported to a new world. Or at least to a strange place. He still thinks he’s on Earth.
He tries to stand up and walk away, but keeps bouncing and falling down, ignominiously. Think of Superman, learning how to fly. Carter eventually figures out how to jump very high, and traverse the landscape, quickly. But he has no idea why he can do it.
A hilarious introduction to the younglings of the Tharks, the green Martians, is quite funny. You feel trepidation, eying up the collection of eggs, from which burst some squalling green infants. The Tharks attack, but Tars Tarkus sees him jump, and does his best to calm Carter down, and introduce himself. Resulting in the amusing misunderstanding of Carter’s name, which they take to be “Virginia”.
As Carter begins to learn his way amongst the aliens, he collects an outcast Thark named Sola (played by Samantha Morton) and an alien “dog” named Woola. The “dog” was a bit of a cross between E.T. and a frog. He was definitely a huge favorite with the audience, as he travels at lightning speed, but still acts like a normal dog. A smart animal, he was able to get in trouble, follow orders, and come to the rescue. And Woola always got some laughs.
Meanwhile, in the city of Helium, the residents are aware that Sab Than is unstoppable in his quest to take over the planet, but has now requested that he marry the princess of Helium, Deja Thoris. Her father (played by Ciaran Hinds) is heartbroken, but knows that his people will all die, if he denies the conqueror’s demand. Deja, a bit of a scientist, is trying to discover something called the “ninth ray”, in order to fight back against their oppressors, but her machine is vandalized.
Carter comes across Deja, as she attempts to run away from her prospective husband, but he only interferes with the air battle, when he realizes that a woman is in danger. By this time, he has discovered that he can leap to such heights as air ships, and bounds all over the place, seriously annoying Sab Than.
Given a chance to run away, Princess Deja (whom Carter refers to as “Professor”), Carter, Woola, and Sola head for a holy place, to try and discover the use of the medallion, and get Carter back to Earth. At the same time, Deja tries to convince Carter to stay. He is obviously developing feelings for her, but the memories that are still tied to his wedding ring are keeping him from going further.
Captured again, the Princess agrees to the marriage, as she believes that Carter has been able to return to Earth. Carter is taken captive by Matai Shang, whose “ninth ray” powers keep him from doing anything but watch the wedding procession. But his rescue comes from an unusual and hilarious direction. Of course, he must return to the Tharks and fight for his life, in order to convince them to help him.
I won’t tell you how it all turns out on Barsoom. But we return to Ned Burroughs, who has just read that as long as Carter’s body is kept alive, in the mausoleum (burial chamber), his other self can continue to live on Mars. You see, Carter’s death was a bit of a trick, but I won’t explain how. It took him thirteen years to find what he needed, and now his plan was ready. His diary warns Ned that before his “death”, he was being stalked, and Matai Shang may have reached his body already, destroying it, and preventing his return to Mars. Young Ned immediately rushes to the rescue, as a stranger looks on.
I probably gave you too many details, but if you go to see it, you’ll have a little familiarity with the story, to help you out. I loved the movie, and think that when it comes out on DVD, I will enjoy watching it several more times, probably with subtitles, to see what I missed on the first viewing. I enjoyed the fact that Taylor Kitsch, who played John Carter, was still something of an unknown (yes, I know he’s played Gambit), which makes you see him as Carter, and not himself. Kitsch did a great job, didn’t make me laugh over any speeches, but instead, I believed what he said. This was no Jake Gyllenhaal playing around inside of a video game, that’s for sure.
And despite my naming of some of the other actors and actresses, I felt the rest were such good actors, and so well established in their character, they I didn’t sit there, thinking of their real names, whenever I saw their names. Unlike some other movies, I didn’t think Ciaran Hinds, Willem Dafoe, or Thomas Haden Church were “slumming”. They’re the great actors that helped carry the film.
No, I’m sure the movie wasn’t perfect, but I was never taken out of the story by the alien characters or any of the other special effects. It was done so seamlessly, I had no trouble believing in this world. And I loved how the romance between Carter and Dejah developed, and even let him confront his demons, over the loss of his first wife and child.
Anyone who asks, I will tell them that I loved the film, found the story delightful, and will definitely be getting a copy, when it comes to DVD. If you’ve read a review that says it’s a flop, go see it for yourself, and don’t take their word, or mine, for it. As far as I’m concerned, Disney may have spent too much money, making this movie, but I think they did an excellent job. Good on ya, Disney. Keep ’em coming.
[Update: Yes, you’re seeing more articles about how this movie is doing at the box office. The naysayers are out in force. Ignore them. This is NOT another case of Mars Needs Moms, even if the same planet is involved. This was a good movie, with great actors playing wonderful characters, that shouldn’t be forgotten just because Disney overspent itself.]