Disney’s new “John Carter” emerges from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s science fantasy/adventure novel “Princess of Mars,” published in 1917, the first of 11 Mars books. Many readers will already know Burroughs as the author of “Tarzan.”
Burroughs’ books are exciting, filled with romance and adventure, but are unfortunately subject to the ideas of their time – a bigotry about women and race. “John Carter” clarifies that the peoples of Mars differ in culture and habits, not in genetic abilities. Captain Carter, prospector from Virginia and formerly of the Confederate Army, is both metaphorically colorblind and has come to see that “war is a shameful thing.”
The film follows the book to a degree and retains a number of funny scenes as well as adding new ones –when John Carter first regains consciousness in the lower gravity of Barsoom (what the Martians call their world), for example, every step he takes becomes a leap and an awkward landing until he gets used to it.
Costumes and special effects are very nice. The animals – the doglike “calot” and the “thoats” (horse-equivalents) are fantastic. The flying machines are, too. On the down side, the Tharks bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Star Wars niverse’s gungans, of Jar Jar Binks fame.
The acting is mostly good. Taylor Kitsch looks the part of John Carter, though it is disconcerting that he has no Southern accent. He is convincing enough and is as pretty as his leading lady, Lynn Collins, who plays Dejah Thoris, a princess of the (literally) red people. Her acting is a little wooden, but she is great to watch in battle. Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad,” “Malcolm in the Middle”) plays a wonderful Powell in the opening scenes, and Willem Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Tharks (the green, six-limbed, 15-foot-tall Martians), though one wouldn’t know it for the makeup and prostheses. Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood in “Sherlock Holmes”) is wonderfully evil. Dominic West (“The Dominic West (The Wire,” “300”) is such a good actor that one forgets early on to think of him as Jimmy McNulty.
It is a shame that that is where the good stuff ends. Andrew Stanton, both director and one of the screenplay’s three writers, is known mostly for “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Toy Story” I and II. The main story as presented in “John Carter” is just as simple as those of his other films: Hero wants to go home, hero meets woman of his dreams, hero fights the bad guys, hero gets what he wants.
Not that simple is necessarily bad, but in this case “simple” becomes simplistic. The other story arcs are, somewhat confusingly, quite a bit more complicated and perhaps hard to follow. The romantic dialogue between John Carter and Dejah Thoris is mostly embarrassingly clichéd. What Michael Chabon (“The Misadventures of Kavalier and Clay,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001) contributed is hard to pinpoint.
The music, by Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek “Up,” “Ratatouille,” “Fringe” and a host of video games), is by and large uninteresting. “John Carter’s Theme” is more a surge of musical sound than a musically interesting or even recognizable theme; the “romantic” (drippy) music clicks on at appropriately intimate moments like a light switch; and the music with some of the battle scenes swells and diminishes melodramatically – but with no real suspense or drama.
More fun scenes than embarrassingly inadequate ones are to be seen in “John Carter,” and viewers who were asked said they liked it (a dad and his two daughters). Those who like the genre and miss the movie in theatres might keep it in mind to watch at home on a rainy weekend evening when nothing else is happening.