Well here it is. The movie I've been waiting for since I was a geeky 13 year old, dreaming of going to Barsoom. And how was it? Well read below and I'll try to tell you. If you want to skip the next paragraph-where I will attempt to summarize the plot-and skip to my thoughts go ahead.
OK the plot: After a brief opening narration-where we're informed that our notion of the planet Mars is wrong-we arrive in the middle of a decisive battle between two warring races-the Heliumites and the Zodangans-and it looks like the Heliumites are about to win and defeat the evil Sab Than (Dominic West). But he is saved at the last minute by three floating bald dudes-sorry the omnipotent Therns and their leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong)-who give him some device that attaches to his wrist and shoots blue lightening that can destroy anything in it's path. Back on Earth we finally meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an eccentric adventurer who sends for his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara). But when Edgar arrives, he is told his uncle has died under mysterious circumstances and has left him his estate-including a journal that tell his wild tale. While out prospecting for gold in the Arizona hills shortly after the end of the Civil War, John finds a cave of gold. But he has other problems-an Union general (Bryan Cranston) who wants him to fight against the Apaches. But after escaping the Union guys and the Apaches, John suddenly sees the light-a cave with a bald guy who attempts to kill him. When John grabs an amulet and repeats the man's dying words he suddenly passes out-only to awaken somewhere else. And before he knows it he can bounce around and is found by a group of four-armed creatures. He eventually meets their leader-Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the rest of the tribe known as Tharks. While John gets used to these guys, girls-especially the friendly Sola (Samantha Morton) and a big old calot named Woola, Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) has finally found the source of the "9th ray" which seems to be the same power source the Zodangans are using. Unfortunately a Thern in disguise destroys her test and her father reveals something else-he's promised her to Sab Than in matrimony to bring peace. Well not taking that lying down Dejah flees only to be pursued by Sab and his ships, until they arrive in Thark country where John takes action to save her. Believing that possibly his abilities could save her people Dejah attempts to get him to Helium but John just wants to go home, especially after he learns he's on Mars. And it's a long journey down the river Iss, through a motorized Zodanga and a lot of great white apes before he decides to help. And you can figure out the rest-a big battle and the biggest wedding crash since Flash Gordon impaled the groom.
Sorry for the last line. My sense of humor got in the way.
So after waiting 23 years-and I'm sure a lot longer for most of you-John Carter of Mars finally jumped to the big screen. I guess to start with as anyone who has followed this blog knows I've been skeptical of this film almost from day one. The track record of movies based on Burroughs' work. The fact that Disney was making it. Not being a fan of director Andrew Stanton or some of his casting choices or decisions. So when I went in I wasn't pitching my expectations too high. And when I came out I was of two minds-as a regular movie goer and as an ERB fan.
In the case of the former well the movie delivers big time, but with some major hitches. First the good stuff-Lynn Collins. Yes I know. I was really skeptical about her since having to endure her performance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Throw in early word of Dejah being a warrior princess and I was ready to give up. Well surprise she turns out to give the best performance of the film. She captures the girlish quality that Burroughs wrote about in A Princess of Mars, along with the haughy quality as well-in particular her doubts about John's story how he got to Barsoom. She also was quite gorgeous in the film-even with the tattoos-and showed a feistyness that I loved. In fact I almost wished they had just made a Dejah Thoris movie.
I also loved the performances of Dafoe and Morton as Tars Tarkas and Sola respectively. They brought humor to the roles while maintaining their dignity (even though I didn't care for the rewriting of their history-see below). And Woola was a scene stealer-so much so I'm still surprised that Disney hasn't released any toys of him. I'm sure kids would love to have one. The rest of the plusses: The great white ape scene was the action highlight as was John's escape from Zodanga. I also liked some of the supporting performances like James Purefoy's turn as Kantos Kan and West's Sab Than but they did suffer from being underused-or in the case of West being reduced to second banana status.
The one thing though that I am of two minds on is Taylor Kitsch's performance as John Carter. In the opening scenes on Earth I just had a hard time believing him as a shattered war veteran or for that matter a prospector. Once he was on Barsoom his performance got better and his scenes with Collins were pretty special. In some ways Kitsch almost brought to mind Harrison Ford in his early Star Wars/Raiders of the Lost Ark days-which is good. Just bear with the opening.
And now we head towards the dark side-the problems. And guess what I absolutely hated? Yep those darn Therns. It wasn't bad enough that they were rewritten into shape shifting, floating guys in robes but as a friend pointed out afterwards they were basically clones of the Sith from Star Wars, just minus the lightsabers. It also didn't help that Mark Strong basically played the same character as he did in Sherlock Holmes-a charlatan using people to accomplish his own goals of massive destruction. Also-and I can understand the complaints of the critics-what was their major goal? Basically as stated they don't cause the destruction of worlds, they just give them the tools to do it themselves. Well that's all well and good but if they destroy Barsoom where does that leave them? And what does it accomplish? In all honestly it was really vague as to their ultimate plan and I feel Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon must have just thought no one would care if it was confusing.
Other issues were minor but still annoyances. First I still don't see why Carter was given a dead wife and child since it really had little bearing on the plot at all and in the end didn't matter (I wonder since in some of those scenes Kitsch had shorter hair than the rest of the movie if these weren't added in reshoots after he cut it for Battleship). Also the opening scenes on Earth were dry and slow and filled with tiresome humor-John's repeated escape attempts for example. Finally the final battle was a chaotic mess in the editing-you couldn't tell who was fighting who which I guess can be blamed on the costume design.
Now that's just the average movie goer talking. As an ERB fan well I'll just cut to the chase: If you're expecting a faithful adaptation of A Princess of Mars you won't be happy. The skeleton is intact-from the opening to the wedding finale-but there is a lot of liberties taken. Some of it supposedly was done to flesh out the characters which in some cases does work-Dejah for example-but in other cases it doesn't. The biggest is the rewriting of Tars Tarkas and Sola's back stories. Why they needed to do this I don't know-it robs the film of one of the book's emotional high points and renders Tars in particular weak-especially in his scenes with Tal Hajus. I feel I would have to do another whole separate review to nick pick all of the things Stanton has gotten wrong but that will be another day.
So in closing after all of this rambling how was John Carter of Mars? Did it live up? Well as I said I went in with low expectations and came out entertained. It's a fun Saturday afternoon movie-nothing more, nothing less. And I guess that's all we could hope for. Rating: I guess I'll give it a ***1/2 out of 4 as a movie. As an adaptation a ** out of 4.