Before Jake Sully, before Han Solo, before virtually every science fiction hero you can brainstorm in two minutes or less, there was John Carter. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, best known as the creator of Tarzan, brought him to life in a serialized story a full century ago in April 1912. In 1917, the tale would be published as the novel A Princess of Mars.
As the curtain opens, it's 1881, and wealthy Civil War veteran John Carter has passed away. His nephew, a fictionalized version of the story's writer, has been summoned for a reading of the will. Among the treasures he's bequeathed is Carter's journal, which tells a story beyond his wildest imagination.
In 1868, the journal relates, Carter discovered a cave of gold—and cryptic writings—in the Arizona desert. While being pursued by hostile Apache Indians and government forces, the former Confederate surprises and shoots a strangely dressed bald man lurking in the cave. Seizing a glowing amulet from around the man's neck, Carter is mysteriously teleported to another desert where he can, for some reason, leap enormous distances and has seemingly superhuman strength.
The truth eventually dawns on him: "I'm on Mars!"
Mars at that moment is embroiled in a planet-wide civil war. The human-looking citizens of the city-state of Helium have been resisting the cunning attempts of the kingdom of Zodanga (also humanoids) to obliterate them in a millennium-long war. But the stalemate has recently been broken by a new weapon of unfathomable power wielded by Zodanga's scheming king, Sab Than. As Sab Than obliterates Helium's legions, the city-state's king yields to Sab Than's terms of surrender: giving the hand of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris, in marriage to him.
The princess, however, will have none of that—and flees.
Carter, meanwhile, has been half captured, half adopted by a fierce tribe of 15-foot-tall warrior aliens with tusks on their heads and four arms on their bodies. They're known as Tharks, and Carter's quickly befriended by a leader named Tars Tarkas, who sees something in the human his comrades don't.
Right about then, Dejah Thoris' fleeing ship floats overhead, with Sab Than in hot pursuit, determined to claim his would-be bride.
But John Carter will have none of that.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
John Carter is a decorated Civil War veteran from the South. But the killing of his beloved wife and child (whose bodies he finds in a flashback scene) has sapped his appetite for self-sacrifice. When we first meet him, Carter is medicating his soul with the pursuit of riches ... and booze. It's his rendezvous with Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris on Mars—which the planets' denizens know as Barsoom—that will slowly reawaken the hero within.
The spark of attraction between the princess and the earthling is immediately evident. Carter resists it, not wanting to risk his heart again. And for much of the film, he's more interested in finding a way back home than he is rescuing Dejah. But much like the aforementioned Han Solo's interaction with Princess Leia in Star Wars, Carter's calloused heart is softened by a beguiling princess who would bravely do anything to save her people. Slowly, Dejah's courage and noble character revive Carter's own heroic instincts, after which he fights with all his considerable might to rescue her and save her people.
Along the way, Carter and Tars Tarkas become brothers in arms (and remember, there are six arms between them!). Tars Tarkas, as well as his kind daughter, Sola, repeatedly put themselves at risk to protect or save Carter, despite strong disapproval at times from their fellow Tharks. Carter repays the favor by ultimately winning the fearsome alien race's allegiance, becoming their leader and commanding an army of Tharks in the film's climactic battle.
The idea of eternity with God is evoked when it looks as if Carter is dead on Earth. A flashback shows him burying his wife and child and placing makeshift crosses on their graves. A Hindu statue shows up in his treasure room.
On Mars, all races seem to participate in a monotheistic religion. Specifically, both the human-like Red Martians and the Tharks worship a goddess named Issus. They pray to her personally (Dejah entreats, "Goddess, help me! I'm helpless!"), they worship in sacred temples and earnest adherents make spiritual pilgrimages. Issus' name is used as a mindless interjection, too, much as Jesus' is on our world.
Seeking a way back to Earth, Carter and Dejah enter a Thark temple to Issus, an action that is considered blasphemous. While there, they discover an inscription reading, "Let those who seek the solace of eternity journey on the river and find everlasting peace in the bosom of Issus." That leads them up the sacred river in search of the Gates of Is, a portal Dejah believes will help Carter return home. Once there, however, she discerns that its wonders are not of a spiritual origin: "This is not the work of gods," she exclaims. "These are machines."
That leads us to the Therns. The goddess is served, it is believed, by mysterious agents known as Therns, who act as her messengers. The malevolent Matai Shang is the chief Thern; he's grants Sab Than his awesome weapon—supposedly an expression of the goddess's will. But the Therns, we learn, are not messengers of Issus at all. These bald men, sometimes known as White Martians, are beings of advanced technology who use it to manipulate events—across the universe.
Matai Shang confesses to Carter (his prisoner at one point) that he and his race move from planet to planet, working behind the scenes to shape each world's ultimate destiny. "History will follow the course we have set," he says. "We don't cause the destruction of a world, we manage it. Populations rise. Societies divide. Chaos spreads." Eventually, he says, a population devours itself and "slowly fades." It's a process he and his people somehow "feed" off of.
In all of this, then, the film presents a surprisingly intricate imagined Martian mythology. There's a unified monotheistic religion that, while definitely not Christianity, exhibits parallel ideas, including a personal deity who is said to hear the prayers of supplicants and supposedly has a will for the way events play out. But that religious tradition is set against the backdrop of a deeper magic—technologically driven—that has been used to either perpetuate or exploit it. And note that several scenes show Thern agents on Earth as well.
Dejah Thoris' outfits expose cleavage, midriff and thigh—with her wedding gown in particular revealing quite a lot of each. For his part, Carter is almost always shirtless on Mars. Several action scenes find her in his arms. They kiss. And the night after their wedding, we see her sit up in bed with a sheet wrapped around her chest. (Carter is not in bed with her.) There's vieled talk of consumation.
Sab Than's super-weapon makes him unstoppable on the battlefield. It fires a lightning-like ray vaporizing all comers. In almost video game fashion, he sweeps the beam across the decks of floating warships in the opening battle, incinerating virtually everyone onboard. And it's a weapon he uses repeatedly throughout the film.
Aerial warfare—when Sab Than's not using his rampaging ray gun—is akin to two 17th-century galleons trading cannon shots at close range. And speaking of close range, when the soldiers of Helium and Zodanga clash, those battles look a whole lot like something out of Gladiator (though not as graphically rendered) as they attack with swords while wearing Roman-evoking armor and leather accoutrements. As for the Tharks, they are vicious hand-to-hand opponents, and they also employ long rifles in battle. Quite a few characters are shot, both on Mars and in a battle between American soldiers and Apache Indians back on Earth.
Carter beheads a Thark adversary in a duel, and we see the head hit the ground. He, Tars Tarkas and Sola fight two enormous, fanged apes in a gladiator-like arena. Carter eventually kills both apes, with the second falling on top of him. Several seconds later he emerges from the creature's carcass, having cut his way through. He's covered with its bright blue blood. In a brig on Earth, Carter grabs a guard's head through the bars, ramming it into the metal and knocking him out so he can escape.
As a punishment, a Thark is branded on her back with a glowing iron. Thark hatchlings (the race is reptile-like) not strong enough to keep are mercilessly massacred by the grown-ups, who, incidentally, fight over the right to "own" and raise the survivors. (We see images at a distance of Tharks firing rifles into a hatchery.)
Crude or Profane Language
One use of "g‑‑d‑‑n" and two milder misuses of God's name. "H‑‑‑" is uttered a half-dozen times, "d‑‑n" twice.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Two American soldiers at a fort in Arizona are shown drinking.
Other Negative Elements
Carter urinates (onscreen, seen from the rear) through the bars of the brig. Dejah deceives Carter at one point, and he punishes her by throwing her out of her beast's saddle.
Big-budget action flicks are a dime a dozen these days, never mind that they cost a whole lot more than that to make. What sets John Carter apart is that this story—which reportedly cost Disney $250 million—is really the ancestor of them all. Both George Lucas and James Cameron credit Edgar Rice Burroughs as an inspiration. And it's clear that director Andrew Stanton, best-known for helming Pixar's WALL-E and Finding Nemo, has got Lucas and Cameron in his sights.
The circular result is an epic swashbuckler that is both homage and original. It starts slowly—there's a lot of backstory to be developed before the film starts hitting on all cylinders—but once things get rolling, John Carter's heroic heart matches its lofty aspirations. And in some ways it's more emotionally satisfying than either Avatar or the new Star Wars prequels. There's gobs of CGI wizardry, of course, but at least here it serves the story well—the story of a once-and-future hero whose nobility is reinvigorated by a beautiful princess and the just cause she's fighting for.
As for that princess, again just like Leia (in Return of the Jedi), there's enough of her body visible to warrant a notation. Not that Stanton depicts her as being "destitute of clothes" like the books do. Violence? Intense and nearly constant. Mostly bloodless. It's very similar to what we see in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And then there's the spiritual stuff. Avatar posited an aggressive pantheism. John Carter paints a vivid picture of monotheism—that's somewhat at the mercy of … technology. And plot points are often driven by the Martians' devotion to Issus.
So is Issus a stand-in for Jesus? Is John Carter, who bears His initials and becomes an otherworldly savior? Or do the Therns fill that role here? The movie hints at those kinds of questions for Christians, but it doesn't answer them. And if you walk even a few steps down any of those paths, the analogue breaks up into digital static pretty quickly.
What doesn't distort or disintegrate is John Carter's journey toward rediscovering the qualities that made him a hero in the first place. He has to go all the way to another planet to do it, but do it he does.