Edgar Rice Burroughs receives a note from his uncle, John Carter, a Civil War veteran from Virginia, to come to his home post-haste. He arrives to find Carter dead and entombed in a mausoleum that can only be opened from inside, per Carter’s very specific instructions. Among his effects is a journal, which is intended for Burroughs’ eyes alone. In it, he reads the story of Carter’s adventures on Barsoom — Mars.
After the Civil War, Carter had lost everything and goes west to seek his fortune, following rumors of a hidden “cave of gold.” When Carter discovers his cave of gold, he is attacked by a strangely dressed man who tries to kill him. Carter emerges victorious, but through the agency of a strange medallion the man wore, wakes in a strange place, where he soon discovers he can leap great distances and perform prodigious feats of strength. He is soon captured by a tribe of very tall, very skinny green people with four arms, the Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). One of the women, Sola (Samantha Morton) gives him a drink that enables him to understand the language, for which she is punished — apparently, this is a gross breach of conduct among her people. They escape, and run into Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), who is fleeing a forced marriage with the leader of Zodanga, a city with which her own home of Helium has been fighting a civil war for a thousand years. The Zodangan ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West) offers peace at the price of Deja’s hand in marriage. But Sab Than is controlled by the Thern, a race of immortals who feed off the fall of civilizations, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong). And thus, Carter finds himself in the middle of the conflict and a target of the Thern.
I think you really have to have a history of loving pulp fiction to swallow this one whole. There are bits of dialogue that are a little beyond strained to contemporary ears — to the point that I sometimes wondered how the actors could deliver those lines without dissolving into giggle fits — and let’s face it, the story is fanciful in the extreme. (Wikipedia calls it “science fiction.” Sorry, no — it’s pure fantasy.) However, if you can handle that, it’s a lot of fun.
About those actors: both the live actors and the voice actors (the Tharks are, needless to say, animatronics, and of a very high order) do more than creditable jobs. This is, after all, largely melodrama, and they deliver it straight, which is the only way to make it work.
The effects are well handled, and while not over-the-top spectacular, they are a good fit with the story. The animatronics, in particular, are excellent, and involve not only the Tharks but the wildlife and domestic animals of Mars.
Considering the adaptations of some of Burroughs’ other works (how many versions of Tarzan have there been, in film, television, and even comics?), this one seems pretty faithful to the original without adhering to it slavishly — it works as a film, but you get the feel of Burroughs’ story. And it’s a fairly tight script — there’s not a lot of filler, and the exposition is handled pretty well.
(132 minutes, rated PG.)
(Disney/Buena Vista, 2012)