John Carter is a down-on-his-luck Virginia cavalryman who stumbles his way from post-Civil-War Arizona to a place even more dry and desolate: Barsoom. (Or “Mars” for us dumb Jasoomians.) He learns quickly that he’s stronger and tougher than he really should be, jumping crazy distances and such. (Oh, the joy of lower gravity.) He also becomes a lynch pin of sorts in a three-way battle for Barsoom. The Heliumites and Zodangans are at each others’ throats, and the Tharks try desperately to stay out of their way, to outlive them and take Barsoom for themselves.
John Carter “befriends” Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Tharks (which are eight-foot-tall creatures with four arms and impressive facial tusks). Then he saves the life of Dejah Thoris, the princess of the Heliumites, who’s been promised to Sab Than, the leader of the Zodangans. (Everyone on Barsoom likes to call people by their full name. Go figure.)
Yeah, the film spends some time building up all this back story. (I haven’t even mentioned the Therns, who may or may not be emissaries from The Goddess.) That kind of thing doesn’t particularly bother me, if it’s done well. And here, I think it is. I never felt lost. I appreciated seeing a story that’s not just Good Guys and Bad Guys, but Good Guys, and Mean Guys who Might Be Good, and Misled Guys who Seem Bad, and Other Guys who Pull Strings.
Though, I have to admit, there are plenty of plot points and story beats that anyone familiar with science fiction of the last century will recognize. So much of it was influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom stories, that now it feels like John Carter is a retread. But I can’t fault them for that. This is the first big screen adaptation of the novel A Princess of Mars, and I think it stands well alone. (I suspect I’ll track down the original story to see what changes they made to modernize the tale.)
The effects were well done, and the action is exciting. The scene in which John Carter single-handedly (well, except for Moola) takes on an entire Thark army was my favorite. But, really, the whole film worked for me.
I do have a couple of interesting casting notes. First, I think it’s fun that two Tharks are voiced by guys who played Spider-man villains (Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church). I guess Alfred Molina and Topher Grace weren’t available.
And second, who thought it was a good idea to have James Purefoy and Dominic West in the same film? I can’t tell those guys apart! I’m just glad Rufus Sewell wasn’t also in it, or my head might have exploded. I mean, really, can you tell them apart?