ComicsHistory Movie Review: John Carter of Mars Is More Fun Than a Barrel of Tharks

For fans of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books, the new John Carter movie hews enough to the literary source code to satisfy. And the fight scenes are cool!

John Carter of Mars Movie Review

L:ynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

Lynn Collins as
the sword-wielding, butt-kicking Dejah Thoris
from the John Carter

In this, the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Mars Series” of stories and novels, Disney released the John Carter movie on March 9, 2012. The following review does contain movie spoilers, but, as the spoilers are like a green-skinned, four-armed, 15-ft. tall Thark or Warhoon, you will notice the spoiler alert before you approach them.

I first encountered the John Carter/Mars/Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs through a series of paperback books I read when I was a kid. My father and grandfather had read them (in hardback), much earlier, and encouraged me to check out this exciting science-fiction series. The Mars books were action-packed, filled with strange aliens, endangered princesses, and horrible monsters that always seemed to be in the way of our hero, John Carter and his gigantic, green-skinned friend, Tars Tarkas. When I first heard that Disney was making a feature film based on the Mars books, I was both excited and worried. Why worried? Well, sometimes when an established story or character gets the “Disney Treatment,” something vital is lost. Also, as a fan of the original stories, I worried that in adapting it for the big screen, the writers and the director would think they could improve on the “original source code” of the Burroughs books, thereby totally screwing things up.

These concerns entered my head as I sat down for a 9:30 PM showing of John Carter in the local multiplex with a collection of fellow geeks to check out the action. My worries immediately shot up as I saw that the opening sequence of the film had no recognizable corollary to anything from the first Mars book. (BTW: I decided to re-read the first book in the series, “A Princess of Mars,” digitally, in preparation for seeing the movie). Ok, it had air ships from Helium and Zodanga, two of the battling Martian city-states from the books, but that was the only part I recognized. The movie creators obviously employed a plot device to explain part of the back story, and introduced some, ah, shall we say, new characters and technology that I did not recognize from A Princess of Mars. (Possible Spoiler: The “new character,” or at least the Martian “race” he belongs to, does appear in second book in the Mars Series, though the movie version is somewhat different than in the novels).
After the aforementioned opening sequence, the movie settled into an introduction of John Carter in 19th Century America, as in the book, with a few changes in the story, but nothing that screamed of dire illogic or Barsoomian blasphemy. (Intentionally not giving too much away here, my dear Spoiler-phobics).

The manner in which our titular hero is transported to Mars is different from the book version, but in a way, it makes more sense than the original written version. Surprisingly, this difference, while providing an alternate explanation of John Carter’s arrival on Mars, is somewhat logical, at least to those used to the technological.

When our hero arrives on Mars, a rather humorous scene ensues in which Carter, as a human from a world with a more powerful gravitational pull, has to re-learn how to walk. As in the book, his denser Earth-born bones and strong muscles enable him to leap great distances. (Note: It is believed by some that the original Superman’s ability to “leap tall building in a single bound” originated with the abilities of John Carter, who first appeared in print some 27 years prior to Superman’s publication). As in the books, Carter encounters Tars Tarkas and the Green Men of Mars, is captured, and then becomes a sort of hero among the Tharks. The special effects and set designs for the movie are very true to the essence of the original story, as are all the Barsoomian creatures John Carter encounters in his travails.

John Carter Movie Poster

John Carter Movie

The battle scenes are exceptional, from the air-ship combat between the fleets of Helium and Zodanga, to the ground combat involving the Green Men. The cities of Zodanga and Helium are well-designed, as are the costumes and uniforms of the denizens of those cities.

The character of Dejah Thoris, who is, literally, the Princess of Mars, is very well-played by Lynn Collins, who transforms the literary character from a damsel in distress stereotype, to a sword-wielding scientist-warrior who kicks butt with the best of them. Being a Disney movie, Dejah Thoris and other female characters are more suitably clothed than in the novels or in the comic books. (In print, the female Barsoomians are nearly naked, especially in the cover art of Frank Frazzetta). It should also be pointed out, that as John Carter in some ways was a precursor to Superman, Dejah Thoris, at least as imagined by Frank Frazzetta, served as a model for the Princess Leia Slave-Girl costume from Star Wars.

John Carter of Mars by Frank Frazzetta

John Carter of
Mars Art by Frank

An interesting side-note to the movie, is that there appears to be some allegory
related to Christian themes and metaphors
I frankly did not notice until I read an article on it the next day, but then it seemed quite obvious. At the end of the film, the movie title appears, then part of it fades away, leaving the initials of our hero, the savior of Mars. Those letters, of course, being JC. The article points out the fact that (Spoiler Alert), John Carter dies, is placed into a tomb which can only be opened from the inside, (supposedly), and when the tomb is opened, the body is gone. Then he appears again to finish his work. Hmmm, I think I know that story! As in many novels and written works, inserting some type of Christ allegory is a common literary device.

Overall, this was a fun movie to see. The John Carter of the books is recognizable in the John Carter of the movie. The costumes, set designs, characterizations, and special effects are all very well-done. The acting by Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, along with all the others, is solid. The action scenes are good, and there are several instances of humor sprinkled throughout the move. The play on the name of Carter’s home state on Earth (Virginia) is a well-written and well-delivered running gag throughout the film. I look forward to the sequel.

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