I finally saw John Carter yesterday. I had fun, but I kind of wish I waited for it on pay-per-view. More over, I’m pretty sure Disney wishes they hadn’t spent $250 million on it. It’s not a bad movie. It just strikes me as something you use to backdoor a series on SyFy. Too bad Universal isn’t producing this.
But to the movie. John Carter is an ex-Confederate soldier in Arizona looking for a cave of gold. When he finds it, he also finds a strange man with a weird weapon that shoots blue light. Carter’s gun shoots lead, which works quite nicely on Martians. He grabs the strange man’s medallion and is zapped. When he wakes up, he’s still in the desert, only when he tries to stand, he flies through the air. Turns out you have to practice in Martian gravity. So John Carter becomes the role model for Superman 65 years before the first Action Comics.
Carter is rescued – or captured – by a horde of six-limbed Martains, the Tharks. While Carter is trying to figure out where he is, out of the sky falls the Princess Deja. By this time, Carter has figured out how to turn himself into Neo from The Matrix simply by leaping incredible distances. He’s drawn into the war to control Barsoom (Mars), which could end if Deja marries Sab Than, who will be supreme leader. Or he’ll just destroy Deja’s city and take over anyway. Carter is sucked into the intrigue, kicks ass, and saves Mars. All this told in a framing story to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Like I said, I had fun with this one, but I didn’t think it was worth the price of a first run ticket. Originally, I thought they were going to say that Barsoom was just some random planet elsewhere in the universe, but instead, it looks very much like the planet we see through the rovers that have been prowling the Red Planet for the past twenty years. Only this is 1868, and at that time, Mars – Barsoom – was still habitable, though it was dying. Not a bad way to help an audience used to being alone in the solar system to suspend disbelief.
There are scenes that make clear George Lucas had Burroughs’ John Carter series very much on his mind. The gigantic leaps Carter takes are dead ringers for the ones the Jedi take in the Star Wars prequels. There is a scene in the Thark arena that, assuming it was based closely on the original work, was exactly what Lucas had in mind for Anakin and Obi-wan’s battle scene in Attack of the Clones.
And props have to go out to Lynn Collins as Deja and Dominic West as Sab Than. I didn’t recognize West without his East Coast accent. I also didn’t recognize the voice of Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkus, the leader of the Tharks.
But as well-done as the movie is, this is not a story with a built-in audience. It’s not a Star Trek or, more pointedly, it’s no Hunger Games. Sure, John Carter is one of Burroughs’ best-known characters, but it’s been overshadowed by later icons, starting with Buck Rogers. This is not a good investment of $250 million for a movie. It would have been better if someone had done it as a SyFy miniseries, which could then back-door a series.
Plus people these days prefer a darker tone to their science fiction. There needs to be more of a sense of danger, of impending doom. John Carter is reminiscent of the 1980 version of Flash Gordon. Carter is a smarter, better thought-out movie that doesn’t need a Queen soundtrack to prop it up, but for empty calories, I don’t think it’s worth the first-run ticket.