One-hundred years ago this year, Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced the character of John Carter with a serial called Under the Moons of Mars. This was eventually expanded into a novel, called A Princess of Mars, which spawned ten sequels. This series of books became known as the Barsoom series, and influenced countless numbers of science fiction writers and filmmakers over the century. Now, Burroughs’ main protagonist from the series gets his own big screen treatment.
John Carter introduces the character as a war veteran-turned-gold miner in 1868. He is teleported to Mars, or Barsoom, where he discovers that he has increased agility and strength (due to less gravity). These abilities soon get him noticed by a number of tribes that live on the arid planet. While trying to find a way back to Earth, Carter gets caught up in a rivalry that is taking place between some of the tribes. In this tension between the tribes, high importance is placed on a princess named Dejah, who may be able to aid Carter with his home-bound mission.
Carter is jam-packed with Burroughs’ wonderful material, but this is not necessarily a good thing. While trying to cover so many bases, the film starts to feel overstuffed and incoherent at points. The initial story is interesting and fun, but the scriptwriters seem to have struggled in how exactly they wanted to tie in many sub-ideas (and how they wanted to make it appeal to both children and adults, as it is a Disney release). The dialogue is also very ordinary, making a few characters less compelling than they should have been (i.e. some of the villains). The largest problem I had with the script, however, is how an underdeveloped romance takes center stage towards the latter half of the film—crippling it a bit. One entertaining aspect of the script, though, is that it incorporates Burroughs himself into the story.
Though the script is not so hot, director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) does a fine job at translating Burroughs’ magic to the screen. The pacing occasionally feels uneven, but Stanton’s craftsmanship of the worlds and characters is quite marvelous. The blending of visual effects with real locations is seamless. My favorite CGI characters in the film were the Tharks, who are tall, have four arms, and have tusks on their faces. Such visual trickery in Carter really helps to build the film to more than its script. Stanton also does well in staging the action scenes, with big and exciting moments that manage not to become too overblown (some even feel cut short).
Taylor Kitsch plays the title character, and certainly looks the part of the adventurous hero-type. His acting is here-and-there, but he does show some promise in being a rising action star. Lynn Collins stars as Princess Dejah, but while her character is intriguing, her acting is quite poor at times (though she does have a couple of solid dramatic moments). These two leads majorly lack chemistry, too, when it comes to the film’s romantic aspect. The star-studded supporting cast includes Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, and Bryan Cranston. Dafoe impressed me the most out of all, playing (with a voice performance) a Thark warrior named Tars Tarkas. Tarkas is a vividly designed character, and Dafoe’s strong voice presence adds to his impact.
Carter is not a terrific sci-fi film, but it is epic and pretty entertaining. Burroughs’ story and Stanton’s visual treatment are fine for film escapism, but the script flaws (and some of the acting and pacing) really lessened the movie as a whole for me. I still got a lot of enjoyment out of Carter, though, and recommend viewing it if one is in the mood for a couple of hours of adventure and visual wonders.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.