John Carter review — I want to go to Mars!

Unfairly maligned sword-and-planet flick
John Carter's a fun sword-and-planet flick

I recently screened Disney’s John Carter with Josh C. & Sara F. I saw the sword-and-planet movie again later with Janice, who was at a technical writing conference in Memphis this past week. She has also been busy with extra shifts as a volunteer at the Dedham animal shelter. All of us enjoyed the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories.

The movie is framed with scenes of a young Burroughs, played by Spy Kids‘ Daryl Sabara, being summoned to the estate of his late uncle, a world traveler and former Confederate cavalryman. Taylor Kitsch, from Friday Night Lights and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is the eponymous Capt. Carter, who finds himself mysteriously transported from late 1860s Arizona to an inhabited Mars.

On the desert world, Carter encounters tribes of Tharks, four-armed green men, led by the honorable Tars Tharkas (voice and motion capture of Willem Defoe). Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in another civil war, Carter is soon entangled in the conflict between the city-states of Zodanga and Helium, both of which are populated by humanlike “red” Martians.

After meeting the beautiful scientist and princess Deja Thoris (played by X-Men Origins‘ Lynn Collins), Carter decides to fight Sab Than (Dominic West), the Jeddak (chieftan) of Zodanga, and Thern mystic Matai Shang (Mark Strong). He’s aided by Sola (Samantha Morton), the compassionate daughter of Tars Tharkas, and doglike calot Woola.

If this plot seems familiar, it’s because Burroughs created the template for the “planetary romance,” which led to a century of space operas from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Superman to Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars to Stargate, Farscape, and Avatar. The lost but brave Earth man, the spunky princess and sidekicks, the honorable alien warriors, and the mystic duels have become clichés, but John Carter shows us the vitality of their source.

The actors seem to be enjoying themselves with the interplanetary swashbuckling. The script by Michael Chabon takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, with humor similar to that found in the original Star Wars or another pulp revival, The Mummy. I’m currently reading Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for former co-worker Ken G.‘s “Escapists” book club.

Even in this age of computer-enhanced visuals, the Tharks’ facial expressions, the fleet-footed Woola and fierce white apes, the crawling city of Zodanga, and the steampunk airships were all impressively designed and rendered. The aliens interacted smoothly with the human actors. Despite the daunting amount of exposition required for such a movie, I thought that director Andrew Stanton, who also directed Pixar’s Wall-E, did a decent job of pacing.

The grand vistas include the rough-and-tumble frontier of the American west, the windswept deserts of Mars, the rain-soaked streets of New York, and soaring structures and ancient ruins of Barsoom. The soundtrack also evokes a lost age of adventure, although it’s not as memorable as the works of John Williams.

I’d give John Carter, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. Many critics have gleefully pointed out that Disney’s adaptation is somehow subject to the “curse of the Mars movies” and gotten less-than-stellar box office. However, I and other fans feel that many of their criticisms are unfair and typical of mainstream prejudice against genre entertainment.

By contrast, I’ve found video game flick Prince of Persia nearly unwatchable, and a preview image for the upcoming Lone Ranger also stirs doubts about its quality aside from easy parody. I’d love to role-play in a Barsoom game run by Tim M.B., Jason E.R., Brian W., or other scholars of early science fiction, perhaps using GURPS Mars, Savage Worlds, or FATE 3e Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. I recommend John Carter to anyone who appreciates old-fashioned sword-and-planet fun.