“John Carter” the Movie: Grit and Beauty in a Classic Tale

David Bowie always talked about the Spiders from Mars. John Carter may have to fight them.

John Carter, on the surface, looks like Avatar set in Prince of Persia. Having just seen a screening, it goes in a very different direction.

Remember that movie a few years ago, where one man who didn’t fit in on his world went to another civilization, where they look like they’re from ancient history but have magic super-science that looks like religion? And then he has to find his confidence, win their respect and lead them into battle to save them from annihilation against a warring superpower? Don’t forget the skimpy hot but smart, sharp-witted and silk-voiced princess and her rich but emotionally-unavailable evil suitor.

It sounds like a lot of movies. Star Wars 4-through-6. Stargate. Atlantis. Yet somehow, this Disney-written sci-fi does all of that and makes this kingdom on Mars feel heavily down to Earth.

Its secret is in its moral ambiguity. John Carter, retired Confederate general and lone widower, is a man with no friend and no cause. After so much war and death he bitterly wants to be left alone. When an alien in a cave sends him to the barren planet of Barsoom “Mars,” he’s caught by a rugged, Spartan tribe: the Thark. Each must fight and prove themselves to survive, and so must Carter.

The rest of the planet, he finds, is hardly more hospitable. When word gets out that this Earth-man can jump– as in “leap tall buildings in a single bound”– in Barsoom’s low gravity, warlords and victims all want him as a weapon. Even the princess, who wants him to save her kingdom, doesn’t garner his sympathy.

But, as the trailers all tell, he fights. His moral compass twitches until it slowly comes to life, and Carter re-learns there is still honor in fighting to save something worth keeping. Bloodshed is grim and without glory, but it is right.

There’s a reason the story is still familiar. John Carter was written 95 years ago. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars” novel series invented the genre. Every copied story arc since then has come from his fans.

If John Carter has another weakness, though, it’s the villains’ choices of words. Wall-E director Andrew Stanton suffers from that old vice of children’s movie directors: writing fantasy that sounds like, well, fantasy. Its villains speak in little riddles through smooth expressions and sound flowery as can be. The most evil of characters are almost, just almost, cliche to the bone. The roughness of the world is antagonist enough without them.

There’s a reason these movies sell out. They offer fantasy on a mass scale. In 3D or not, John Carter journeys across an entire world, and Disney shows it all. Culture, history, tradition and even biology go deep. Those images will stay with you for days. It may have been 24 hours since I’ve seen it, but they may last for years.

So, go see John Carter. Whether for its grit, for its beauty or for its legacy, go see John Carter.

Final Count: 4 1/2 Stars.


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