I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom novels, so when John Carter was originally announced, I was excited, to say the least. And it’s not like it had to be a particularly stellar movie. The books are fun pulp adventure. As long as the movie held true to that and the characters, I would be happy.
Did it? Well, to an extent. The first half of the movie was an example of trying to update a 100-year-old story for modern audiences, but the second half settled into what made the Barsoom books so much fun. By the end of the movie, I was totally on board, and really hoping that they’re able to move forward with a sequel.
John Carter is a Civil War veteran on the hunt for a cave of gold. But when he finds it, he gets more than he bargained for when he’s transported to Mars. There, he finds himself in the middle of another war that he wants no part of, but it’s here that he learns there are a few things in life worth fighting for.
The story is framed, starting when a young Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a telegram from his uncle, John Carter, only to arrive and learn that his uncle has died. Carter left some very strange requests for his burial, and a journal, which only young Ned is allowed to read. It’s in this journal that Carter chronicled his adventures on Barsoom. It’s a great nod to the way the novels are written, and I’m glad they kept it.
The crew of this movie also did a great job, particularly the people handling the sets and the visual designs in general. Barsoom looked pretty much exactly as I’d pictured it (if slightly less red) and so did the Tharks, for that matter. It looks like Carter’s on an alien planet. That’s probably one of the more difficult things to do, but the crew pulled it off admirably.
They did make a few changes to the plot, especially once John Carter got to Mars, and understandably so. The original story in the book wouldn’t have worked as well. I liked the ending of the movie better than I liked the ending of the book, in part because it made a lot more sense (the book ending kind of came out of nowhere).
But while the plot changes I could get on board with, they altered the characters, particularly John Carter and Dejah Thoris, pretty significantly, and I had some trouble getting into the movie for about the first hour or so.
I can understand why they did it — character arcs are kind of necessary to a story, and I don’t know how well modern audiences would have tolerated Dejah’s character — but it didn’t work for me. It was like I was watching a movie where the characters shared the same names as the ones in the book, but the similarities ended there.
From the beginning of the novel, John Carter was a noble man, honorable and upstanding, ready and willing to fight against injustice, and absolutely in love with Dejah Thoris. So when I saw a man who had been driven to cynicism by his time in the Civil War, and who apparently had been married before, it took me by surprise.
(Of course, this new background gave us a very amusing introduction to John Carter, as he tries to escape from a fort where the U.S. Army is trying to press him into service. So I really can’t complain about that too much.)
But, by the same token, the big reason I liked the second half of the movie better is because that’s when the character I love from the book and the character from the movie finally match up and become the same man. The last half of the movie really takes off, and as I said, by the end of it I wanted more.
And frankly, everything else about this movie does work from the beginning: the action scenes, the visual effects, the aliens, and the other characters — particularly Sola and Woola. If you’re not in love with the Mars dog ten seconds after he shows up on screen, I’m pretty sure you don’t have a soul.
One final note: I had more trouble with the 3D in this movie than I’ve had previously. Normally the glasses don’t bother me, but I was getting a headache and had to take them off a couple of times during the film. If you’re going to see it, I would recommend catching it without the 3D.