I have the Barsoom novels, penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Carter first appeared on the scene in 1912!) and enjoyed them. I love classic sci-fi, when things weren’t as complex as they need to be now to create believability, they were just fun adventures.
And while the film, directed by Andrew Stanton, who has done some of my favorite Pixar movies, does indeed have a sense of film, there, for me, was one thing truly lacking.
A sense of wonder.
The film should be epic… we’re on another planet!! But it feels, most times, small and with a lack of scale, or perhaps when scale is introduced, it’s mostly done by computer generated effects that give us no sense of awe.
I loved the book ends of the film on Earth, I thought they were fun, and if the whole film had that pace and feel, the sense of discovery, then I don’t think I would have much to complain about.
But despite the lower gravity on Mars, giving the transported John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) almost superhuman abilities in terms of strength and movement.
Upon arriving he encounters a race of giant four-armed beings called the Tharks, one of them, Tars Tarkas is voiced by Willem Dafoe.
Samantha Morton voices Sola, the Thark who is responsible for him, until he proves himself in battle, rescuing the lovely, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a Princess of Mars.
It seems there is a war between the human-appearing elements on the planet Barsoom (as Mars is called by its inhabitants), Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) is trying to save the planet from the forces of Sab Than (Dominic West). He, in turn, is being manipulated by a race of beings known as the Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who seem to be intent on keeping us at one another’s throats, using the powerful 9th Ray as a weapon instead of realizing it’s true potential.
I was delighted to see that Dejah Thoris isn’t a passive character as she seemed in the book. She’s a fighter, a searcher, and is herself on the cusp of discovering the power of the 9th ray as more than a tool of mass destruction.
The film has some set pieces, and the design of it, when you get a chance to look around, is full and completely realized. The flyers they use for instance, are gorgeous creations, with wings, and wheels, fascinating control systems. It’s just a shame we aren’t given an opportunity to wonder at it, to see scale, scope.
What could’ve been an epic adventure, which is what it was written as, long before Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon or any of those others came along, is simply reduced to nothing more than a fun film.
It should keep younger viewers entertained, and they’ll love Woola, a big goofy dog-like creature, but should they want more, they’ll have to turn to the books. It’s kind of sad seeing the potential of what could have been. There is a whole series of stories featuring Carter’s adventures on Barsoom, but I fear we won’t get to see them on the big screen.
By no means a terrible film, John Carter is fun and entertaining, but easily forgotten. I do hope it doesn’t stop Stanton from directing again, as I like his work – perhaps it will find a new life on home video, and maybe we’ll see a director’s cut that can inject some of the amazement one would and should have stepping onto a new world…