If there are moments in John Carter where you feel a twinge of deja vu, don’t be surprised. The original pulp novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs that the new Disney film is based on have served as inspiration for writers, comic book creators and filmmakers for a century, so there is bound to be somethings that will look or feel familiar. But director Andrew Stanton’s sprawling epic spectacularly shows us that sometimes there can be no substitute for the original.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a disillusioned former Confederate soldier who has moved out to the American west to be alone. Fleeing conscription by the US Cavalry and some rather irate Apaches, Carter stumbles across a mysterious from which he is transported to Mars or as its inhabitants call it, Barsoom. There he encounters the four-armed, green-skinned tharks led by Tars Tarks (William DeFoe) and finds himself rescuing the lovely and humanoid Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess from one of two warring cities. Carter is drawn into the conflict only to discover that it is secretly being manged by a mysterious group of clerics (led by Mark Strong, is making a career out of epic science-fiction villains). Carter must find a way to defeat them and bring peace to Barsoom before the clerics turn their attention towards Earth.
There is plenty spectacle on display here and it isn’t just a series of action sequences for the sake of having action sequences. Stanton gives them each their own emotional weight, allowing us to become invested in their outcome for the sake of how it will affect the characters rather than just the prurient interest of visually cool, but ultimately vacuous visual effects porn.
For one fight sequence in the middle of the film Stanton intercuts between Carter fearlessly facing off against an army of tharks armed only with a sword and flashbacks to Carter’s life with his wife and child and him tragically finding them dead after their frontier home was burned to the ground by Union soldiers. The fight becomes more than just another action beat in the plot but a pivotal moment for the character, providing him with the emotional closure he needs for his old life in order to embrace his new life on Mars.
Much like Peter Jackson brought J. R. R. Tolkien’s detailed Middle Earth to life in his Lord Of The Rings films, Stanton has plumbed the depths of Burroughs’ novels to bring Barsoom to cinematic reality. He presents a world that has long been in decline, where complex flying machines are manned by sword-wielding soldiers and where scientific study appears to be pursued in ways that recall the monks of the middle ages.
If the film suffers at all, it is right at its center. While Stanton does some good work in delineating Carter’s character, it turns out that for a good chunk of the movie, he is not the most likeable hero for much of that time. Sure, he swings into action to save Dejah Toris a number of times but he does so with a grim expression and a certain reluctance that makes it hard to root for. We need our pulp heroes to embrace their heroics, to be swashbuckling with a smile on their face and we don’t really get that until close to the end of the film. At least if we get a sequel we know that this won’t continue to be a problem.