After numerous failed attempts and a dreadful direct-to-video 2009 clunker starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords, the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars has finally arrived on the big screen just in time for the story's centennial. Re-christening the tale John Carter, acclaimed animation director Andrew Stanton (Wall*E, Finding Nemo) in his first live-action endeavor creates a lush, yet uneven film.
To escape hostile Apaches, former Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) hides in a cave lined with gold. After a violent encounter with a man who suddenly appeared in the cave, Carter awakens on Mars, known to the natives as Barsoom. In the smaller planet’s lighter gravity, Carter’s strength increases dramatically, and he can leap extraordinary distances. His superhuman abilities catch the attention of the Tharks, a large, fierce race of green-skinned warriors with six limbs. Upon demonstrating his mettle in combat, Carter earns the respect and eventual friendship of Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), a Thark chieftain. After witnessing an aerial battle, the Tharks capture Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a member of a humanoid Martian race, from one of the downed ships. Carter follows the woman and gets embroiled in the conflicts of the Red Planet.
Stanton and cinematographer Dan Mindel effectively use the very Terran landscape of the Utah wilderness to create a magnificent Martian desert vista. Intricate cities and exotic clothing, far more elaborate than imagined by Burroughs, showcase an engaging, if too-familiar alien world. Despite the use of the varying locales, Barsoom seems small; resulting in a provincial feel to what should be an epic conflict.
The film’s finest moments center on the amazing depiction of the Tharks and their society. Steering well clear of the tired "green men from Mars" cliche, Stanton and his cohorts deliver an engaging portrayal of these noble, brutal beings with fascinating glimpses into their harsh society. With strength tempered by empathy, Dafoe and Samantha Morton as Sola bring these key characters to life.
The same cannot be said of Kitsch and Collins. Separately, their performances range from adequate to charming. Yet together, they lack the necessary chemistry to connect emotionally, with each other and with the audience. Although the intensity of their connection should shoot sparks from the projector, the romance feels forced, and their cause fails to elicit a suitable degree of sympathy.
Both actors excel in the many, frequent action sequences. Seamlessly merging CGI with live action, these outstanding scenes offer some of John Carter's most exciting moments. As promised in the trailers, the white ape combat, if misplaced, thrills.
Screenwriters Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon successfully incorporated many elements from the 1912 novel. The framing device of a young Edgar Rice Burroughs receiving a manuscript from his presumed dead Uncle John "Jack" Carter, the Apache attack, and Carter's first experiences on Mars are lifted almost directly from Burroughs. Even the dog-like, Disneyesque Woola derives from the original.
The story falters when it deviates from Princess. An unnecessary and convoluted metaphysical contrivance for Carter's journey requires distracting, albeit visually interesting explanation. The underlying cause of the Barsoom conflict feels contrived and simplistic. At the same time, the story focuses far too much attention on the why and the how.
For example, the opening prologue is front-loaded with information that also unfolds as the tale progresses. Consequently, the movie spends too much time navel gazing.
The most influential science fiction adventure of the 20th century, elements of A Princess of Mars show up throughout the genre in every medium. Popular films such as Star Wars and Avatar and iconic characters Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon derive largely from the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (eleven books in total chronicling the stories of John Carter and his brethren).
Thanks largely to this influence, most viewers will find elements of John Carter both exciting and familiar.
If they can stomach the tacked-on bits, fans of the series will appreciate the scenes lifted directly from the book; and just meeting the Tharks is worth the price of admission.
Ultimately, the visually stunning John Carter doesn’t quite live up to its promise.