Even before you sit down to watch the new Disney film John Carter, there’s something awfully familiar about pretty much anything you’ve seen about the movie leading up to its release. But once the interplanetary action begins to unfold, the déjà vu really starts to set in. The weird thing is, that familiarity comes from many different sources.
In much the same way that the recent Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (read my review here) blurs the lines between fantasy and reality by presenting the works of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jonathan Swift as non-fiction, John Carter is told from the perspective of author Edgar Rice Burroughs as if he is reading the memoirs of his uncle, the real Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Carter’s abrupt jump from post-Civil War adventures in the American Wild West to the similar terrain of Barsoom plays out in much the same way as 1984′s The NeverEnding Story, with the viewer seeing the action as Burroughs reads it.
Upon his mysterious arrival on this unfamiliar planet, Carter soon learns that there are some big differences between the deserts he was just traversing on Earth and the arid landscape of what we soon learn to be Mars, which is in a Mad Max-like state of unrest as its inhabitants are at odds and its natural resources are dwindling. After some clumsy trial and error, Carter discovers that he has almost Superman-like strength on Mars, and he can leap tall buildings in a single bound. These special powers soon attract plenty of attention from the natives. Though he is unable to fly, the red-skinned humans of Helium (who unfortunately do not talk like munchkins as you might expect of people who live in Helium) have mastered that technique with their floating ships, years before the inhabitants of Carter’s home planet have ever seen such things. (You see what they did there, with the people from Helium being able to fly? Clever.)
Thanks in large part to the beauty and spunk of Helium’s Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Carter quickly falls in with her people in their fight against the Zodangans (also human) and the Tharks (tall green creatures that look like a cross between the creatures from Avatar and Star Wars‘ General Grievous, with
Predator-like tusks on their faces). And from the pod race-like scenes to the premise of an unlikely leader and his rag-tag group of allies (including a dog-like creature that is clearly a giant salamander/Boston terrier mix with six legs) trying to unite opposing factions against a common enemy, John Carter has George Lucas written all over it. Or is it the other way around?
The reason so many things in John Carter seem so familiar is because the Burroughs book on which it is based (A Princess of Mars) was a huge influence on Lucas, James Cameron and many other sci-fi and fantasy writers and directors. So its not that this film borrows heavily from other stories, but that those stories have been borrowing heavily from this and other Burroughs works for decades (he’s also responsible for the Tarzan books). Though the movie is an accurate adaptation of Burroughs’ original adventure, and it’s a rare combination of visual accomplishment (in 3-D no less) and an intriguing story, it’s doubtful most moviegoers will realize that movies like Star Wars, Flash Gordon and Avatar likely wouldn’t exist had the John Carter books not been written.
Regardless of that potentially inevitable setback, the movie has a lot going for it. Director Andrew Stanton has proven himself with the animated features Finding Nemo and WALL-E, and John Carter is definitely a great introduction to what he can do in a live action setting. And like so many other live action Disney movies (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes to mind), John Carter is sure to become one of those movies that ingrains itself into the minds of children and other adventurous spirits.
The only weak link in the story comes when a Carter-sympathizing Thark gives him some sort of potion that connects him to Barsoom, allowing him to suddenly understand the planet’s inhabitants, regardless of what language they speak. In turn, they can also understand him despite his Virginian dialect. Though this magical potion and its abilities seem a bit far fetched, at least this movie offers some sort of explanation as to why people from different planets are able to understand each other, unlike many sci-fi and fantasy stories.
But with all the unifying monster-fighting action, the developing love story and visually stunning 3-D effects, John Carter is sure to please most moviegoers, even if many of them think its ripping off all the movies it has inspired. And with ten sequels in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, Disney has plenty of opportunity to create a new sci-fi film franchise.
John Carter. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong and Dominic West. Rated PG-13. www.disney.go.com/johncarter/.