Movie Review: John Carter’s Science Fantasy Tale Makes Case For Greatness of Pulp Fiction

The bland, nondescript title of John Carter could prove to be a hurdle to its box office success. That would be a shame because the movie itself is a grand, fantastical tale that reminds me just how fun a pulp adventure novel can be.

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy and science fiction works, and John Carter is a great example why. In those genres a storyteller’s imagination is allowed to run wilder than in any others. A Civil War veteran in 1868 is transported via the power of a mysterious medallion to the planet Mars? Why not? The premise alone fires up the pleasure centers of my brain.

Taylor Kitsch (best known as bad boy Tim Riggins on TV’s Friday Night Lights) plays the titular hero, who’s become a misanthrope only interested in finding a cave filled with gold to make himself rich after having suffered painful personal losses while he was fighting for the Confederacy. Following a run-in with a bald alien in the Arizona desert, Carter awakens in an unfamiliar landscape where (thanks to less forceful planetary gravity) he possesses superhuman abilities.

Soon he encounters the Tharks — a tall, green, six-limbed warrior species that reminded me a little of the Na’vi of Avatar, only without all the hokey lessons on environmentalism. Carter’s skill at jumping long distances in a single bound astounds the leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Defoe), who decides to keep him alive for his pure entertainment value but eventually adopts him into his own army.

In the midst of a battle Carter meets the beautiful, headstrong Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), who is seeking a way to save her home city-state of Helium from having to surrender to the forces of its rival Zodanga, led by the powerful Sab Than (Dominic West) — and to save herself from being forced to marry Sab Than in order to save her people. Dejah had come close to discovering the Ninth Ray, an unlimited power source that might be able to return the long-extinct oceans to the desolate and dying Martian landscape, but her efforts were subverted by the machinations of a sect of immortal beings known as the Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

If this sounds like an overwhelming flood of strange names and outlandish ideas, early on it can be. There’s a sprawling mythology — developed in the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, on which this film is based — for the ancient civilizations of Mars, whose indigenous name is Barsoom. (The Martians call our planet Jasoom). It’s a lot to cram in, and a few early scenes and a bit of narration get bogged down in exposition. But stick with it, and you’ll soon enough have sorted the characters into bad guys and good guys, and that’s all you’ll really need to understand to follow along.

The film paints a wonderfully imaginative vision of a richly developed culture of which we’re only being given a brief glimpse. While there’s no way around using special effects to depict scenes like the warfare between giant airships and huge mechanical cities on the Red Planet, director Andrew Stanton (known for some of the best Pixar animated films) ensures that the effects always remain at the service of the characters rather than the other away around (as opposed to so many other big-budget blockbusters). The screenplay takes its story just seriously enough, sprinkling bits of humor throughout that allow even the most alien of the alien characters to feel like real beings.

Carter gets drawn into the war on Barsoom, even as he remains intent on finding his way back home. We know from the beginning that he eventually will because the movie’s framing device establishes that he has become a wealthy man living in New York City by 1881. He summons his nephew Edgar (as in Rice Burroughs) to his home to tell him the story of his interplanetary journey.

I hope John Carter manages to earn a nice return for Disney, so that the studio will finance more adventures for Carter to share with Edgar.