John Carter may be new to you but derivations on his story have populated the cinema for a century. Avatar, Star Wars, and Star Trek all trace their origins back to the story of a Civil War soldier who was magically whisked away to Mars where he is deified by a group of put-upon Martians and becomes embroiled in a war between two bands of humans, escalated by a group of interstellar travelers who feed on the decay of society (somehow). An ambitious and epic story packs in plenty of plot but leaves behind subtlety as the character sprint through the film’s 2-hour runtime.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) brings a brooding vulnerability to John Carter, crafting a reluctant warrior who is able to fight but explores every option before engaging in fisticuffs. The film opens with Carter trying to broker peace between union soldiers and native tribesmen—both of whom want him dead—which is a testament to his character (and makes him a great role model for kids in an age of superheroes who punch first and rarely ask questions.) Mars’ low gravity gives Carter superpowers and yet he refuses to throw himself fist-first into a conflict that is not his—until he finds a true affront to justice. A natural warrior who has lost passion for battle after losing his wife, Carter is inspired by the passion of those who surround him.
The characters are all well crafted, though nuance is dropped in the name of expedience: Emotions and motivations are expressed through dialogue making sure that nobody misses the subtext. Fortunately it works with the pulp style used by director Andrew Stanton, the director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo who is making his live-action debut. Actress Lynn Collins plays Dejah, a princess who flees after she is betrothed to the evil Sab (Dominic West, The Wire). Rather than be a damsel in distress, Dejah is a butt-kicking scientist who is as smart as she is beautiful, and she is a great role model for little girls in an era where women are generally relegated to weepy vampire bait.
It would have been easy for the filmmakers to turn John Carter into a superficial action romp and its subtlety is a testament to director Stanton’s skills developed working with story-fixated Pixar. John Carter is a blockbuster Sci-Fi action movie with classic sensibilities that feel authentic to the original stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of John Carter and Tarzan.
While it feels like John Carter rips off Star Wars and Avatar, the truth is that those stories were all inspired by the original Carter stories. Sadly John Carter doesn’t do much to separate itself from the pack, featuring serviceable acting, rousing action, spectacular effects, and an overstuffed (if epic) plot.
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An Alternative Interpretation of John Carter (Spoilers):
While John Carter can be seen as a simple allegory for the American frontier in the midst of the Civil War (each of the human factions represents a side in the war between the states, and the green multi-armed aliens represent the native tribes), it’s far more interesting to look at it as a way a man whose mind has broken deals with the great tragedy that has befallen him.
After returning home from war, Carter finds his wife dead and his homestead burned by some unknown force. He (understandably) cracked and went on a drinking binge that resulted in him searching for some sense of meaning to the tragedy.
The broken mind of John Carter invented a mysterious alien force (embodied by a pasty Mark Strong in the movie) that was controlling the fate of humanity, and is taken to a place where he gains the physical strength to defeat this overwhelming enemy with his fists. He’s single-handedly able to end the Civil War and bring peace to a planet while saving the love of his life, things he was unable to do on Earth.
This interpretation (albeit a stretch) is informed during a big battle scene where intercut with the action are scenes of Carter burying his wife. This scene—also the best in the film—shows that the stories of John Carter’s extraterrestrial adventures may have been nothing more than the delusional ramblings of a man who was broken by the horrors he witnessed in the course of war. That there are alternate interpretations of the movie speaks to the consideration of the filmmakers, which is to its benefit.