BLOGS

<i>John Carter:</i> He’s Got 99 Problems But the Princess of Mars Ain’t One

Pitched somewhere between Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian, Stranger in a Strange Land, Gladiator and a live-action episode of the '80s He-Man cartoon series, the sci-fi blockbuster John Carter is an unwieldy, top-heavy production that really shouldn't work at all. And for the first 20 minutes, it doesn't. Not even a little bit.

Following a sweeping shot of the Red Planet a.k.a. Mars a.k.a. Barsoom (as it's regularly referred to here) accompanied by some ponderous narration that's more suited to a planetarium show than a multi-million dollar feature film, we're suddenly thrown into the middle of a chaotic action sequence in which a bunch of Martians (led by The Wire's Dominic West) are in the process of killing a bunch of other Martians. Suddenly three bald men (including Robin Hood's Mark Strong) in fancy robes show up and gift West with a weapon that emits devastating blasts of blue energy that allows him to easily decimate his enemies.

Just as the audience is wondering what the hell all that was about, the movie cuts away to Earth circa 1881, where a young man named Edgar Rice Burroughs is en route to his uncle John Carter's estate in New York following the older man's untimely demise. Arriving at Carter's home, he's presented with a book-length letter from his uncle detailing a most improbable adventure. The narrative then jumps tracks again, this time going further back in time to when Confederate army veteran Carter (Taylor Kitsch, in a truly laughable fake beard) is riding through Arizona territory trying to elude the long arm of the Union lawmen. He's inevitably captured and brought before Union officer Powell (Bryan Cranston, also sporting some ridiculous facial hair) only to escape and eventually find refuge in a cave where he encounters and fatally shoots one of those bald dudes from the first scene. Picking up a strange object that the alien visitor dropped, Carter hears him utter some kind of strange chant with his dying breaths and in the next instant the Earthman is transported to a brave new world that he'll eventually learn is... Mars.

Up until this point, John Carter seemed like a flatlining patient with no hope of recovery. The performances were wooden, the special effects iffy, the dialogue flat and Andrew Stanton's direction merely competent. But once Carter made his interplanetary leap, the movie started to show signs of life. A semblance of a narrative structure appeared, the pace picked up and the characters, while never becoming three-dimensional, at least displayed some signs of personality. By the time the movie ended two hours later, I was genuinely having a good time. While John Carter never completely solves its numerous problems -- which include a lumpy screenplay, a weak story driven by villains with inscrutable motives, overstuffed action sequences filled with cartoony digital effects and a hero who is at his most effective when not speaking -- it does provide several sequences of rousing sci-fi spectacle. At the same time, though, audiences may find themselves baffled by the Martian jargon the characters are constantly spouting. To help you guys out, we've put together a handy glossary (organized by order of importance rather than alphabetically, FYI) detailing the various characters, alien species and words you'll hear during the course of the film.

Barsoom: As previously explained, this is the Martian word for Mars, which, according to the movie, isn't the dry, dusty, deserted planet astronomers would have us believe it is. Well okay, Barsoom is dry and dusty, but it sure as hell ain't deserted, instead serving as a home to several different alien races, none of whom particularly care for each other.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: The famous author who created John Carter one hundred years ago in the pages of the pulp magazines. Lest you think it was the movie's idea to make him a character in the movie (one who is played by former Spy Kid, Daryl Sabara, no less), that was the conceit Burroughs himself came up with in the original Carter tale, A Princess of Mars. It worked better on the page than it does onscreen, although the role the cinematic Burroughs comes to play in the movie's finale is rather clever. Still, Stanton would have perhaps been wiser to omit him from the narrative in the interests of getting the title character to Barsoom as soon as possible.

John Carter: Our interplanetary hero, who overcomes a tragic past (his wife and child perished while he was away fighting for the Confederacy) to find new life and love on Barsoom. He also discovers that the planet's atmosphere gives him awesome new powers, including super-strength and the ability to leap across the landscape like some kind of muscle-bound grasshopper. Like the movie strongmen of old, Kitsch allows his biceps and six-pack abs to do much of his acting for him. But the former Friday Night Lights star does demonstrate some positive attributes beyond his good looks and ripped physique, including a decent sense of humor and a potent charisma with his leading lady, Lynn Collins. He's no Harrison Ford, but he's also no Alex Pettyfer and thank goodness for that.

Dejah Thoris: The spitfire Martian princess and super-smart scientist that Carter alternately saves, spars with and romances. She's played by Lynn Collins, who is dolled up to be the She-Ra to Carter's He-Man or the Red Sojna to his Conan. Like those characters, Dejah is more of a fighter than a lover and Collins brings the right amount of ferocity to the part. One gets the sense that if she really put her mind to it, she could totally take Carter down, even with his Barsoom-endowed super powers.

Heliumites: The rosy red humanoid species that Dejah belongs to and who are the statesman and scientists of Barsoom. Other important members of the Heliumite race are Dejah's father Tardos Mors (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) and Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), one of the captains of its airborne army.

Zodangans: The other humanoid species that calls Barsoom home, this one considerably more war-like than the more stately, reserved Heliumites.

Jeddak: Barsoom for "King." Specifically, Tardos Mors is the "Jeddak" of the Heliumites, while Sab Than (see below) is the "Jeddak" of the Zodangans.

Sab Than: The warrior played by Dominic West who is handed that powerful energy-firing weapon in the film's opening scene, Sab Than's master plan is to decimate the Heliumites, but he's willing to agree to a cease fire if Tardos Mors agrees to give him Dejah's hand in marriage, thus making Than Barsoom's supreme Jeddak. As the designated heavy, West spends much of the movie glowering and yelling at everyone around him. Unlike Kitsch though, he's capable of more than one facial expression when the scene demands it.

Tharks: What's green, has four-arms and is nine feet tall? No, not a mutated Kermit the Frog... we're talking about Tharks, the third race of Martians (um, Barsoomians?) that we meet in the film. Unlike the grand cities inhabited by the Heliumites and the Zodangans, these nomads enjoy more primitive surroundings. (In essence, they're the Native Americans of Barsoom, a parallel that the movie fortunately refrains from hammering home too heavily.) The magic of CGI allows Stanton to populate the movie with numerous Tharks, but the only three that really matter are Jeddak Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafore), his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) and the rebellious Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), who is basically the Jeddak of All Assholes.

Therns: These are the bald guys from the opening scene, who are perhaps best described as the Watchers of the John Carter universe in Marvel Comics parlance (or the Observers for Fringe fans). The Watchers were in ancient race that observed the evolution of life on other planets, but made a point of never getting involved. The Therns follow the first part of that directive, but happily intercede once whenever a planet is on the verge of unlocking the secret to the most powerful weapon in the universe. With Dejah about to discover said secret, the Therns, led by Matai Shang (Strong), get involved by arming Sab Than and forcing a situation where the princess will have to give up her studies to become a more traditional wife. It's a plan that's full of more holes than Swiss Cheese, which the Watchers probably could have told them if they had brought them in for a consult.

White Apes: Big-ass monsters that the Tharks unleash upon their prisoners in a battle arena. They're also the stars of the movie's single best set-piece, a battle royal that pits Carter against not just one, but two of these bloodthirsty beasts.

Woola: The name of Carter's trusty dog-like alien companion (his particular species is called a Calot) who is like a more proactive version of Dug the Dog from Up. Clearly only present to give the young viewers in the audience something to laugh at (and also potentially market plush toys to), Woola may be Carter's best friend, but for most viewers he'll likely just be an annoyance.

Click here to read our list of other animators turned live action directors
Click here to see our gallery of 'It' actors like John Carter star Taylor Kitsch.

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