The movie opens with a young man discovering that his uncle has unexpectedly died. A lawyer explains to the him that his uncle has left him everything and that all of the funeral arrangements have been carried out and that his uncle's body has been buried in a mysterious vault which can only be opened from the inside. Included in his vast inheritance is his uncle's journal, which contains the entire story of the movie. It is also revealed that the young man is Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. Initially I was irritated by this, as I find it's become cliche and I tend to think of it as film makers attempting to be cute. However when I did get a chance to read an excerpt from the beginning of the book, it is told from the first person perspective of the author. It seems he was trying to give an otherwise completely implausible story an air of authenticity by claiming to have heard it himself directly from the source.
As Burroughs reads the journal he discovers that while his uncle, John Carter, was prospecting in Arizona after the Civil War, he sought refuge from Apaches in a cave. He is suddenly ambushed by a strange looking man and after a brief struggle his attacker is killed and he looses consciousness himself only to wake up in a completely different land, clutching the man's medallion. It takes him a little while to realize he's on Mars, or Barsoom as it's natives call it. It takes him a while to compensate for Mars slightly lower gravity but with practice he's able to get his bearings and finds he's much stronger and is capable of leaping incredibly high.
He's soon discovered and captured by the Green Martians known as Tharks. After reading their description in the book I was pleased by how faithfully the movie portrayed them in both appearance and demeanor. Before long Carter also meets the humanoid Red Martians, particularly Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. The people of Helium have long been at war with the city of Zodanga. The Zodangans are backed by the Therns, powerful beings who resemble men but possess knowledge and power far beyond that of the men of Earth or Mars. With the help of the Thern, Zodanga has brought Helium to its knees and is offering a peace treaty that hinges on Dejah marrying him. Naturally she does not intend to go through with any such thing and is running away when she meets John Carter.
When she meets him she observes his supernatural strength and ability and wants him to help save her city from the Zodangans. However he continues to refuse her pleas, claiming that he has no desire to fight for the causes of others. His seemingly calloused attitude we find springs from the loss of his wife and child while he was away fighting in the War. I'm honestly not sure why he changes his mind and eventually agrees. My hypothesis is that his southern gentility eventually kicked in and he couldn't leave a lady in distress, or maybe it's just because she was pretty and persistent.
This in my opinion tends to be the weak point of many of these type of sci-fi/fantasy adventure movies. The romantic element often feels like it's thrown in just cause, or maybe they do it thinking it will draw in female viewers. Regardless of the reason, John Carter and movies like it have given me the likely erroneous expectation that any handsome stranger I happen go on an adventure with will likely fall in love with me. This situation works for me in instances where there is some plausible development and some sort of under current of attraction that goes beyond "Well we're both pretty and in a precarious situation, so let's go for it!" Avatar for instance in my opinion handled the love story aspect well. Jake and Neytiri started out having a rocky relationship, but he learned a great deal from her and they ended up developing a mutual respect and love. One of my favorite scenes in fact is at the end when she rescues him and they both are together for the first time without him using his avatar body. It's subtle but so well acted. John Carter's romance is unfortunately more contrived feeling and slightly harder to accept especially in light of how haunted he still appears to be by the loss of his family.
What I do have to give John Carter high marks for however is giving me twists and turns that I did not see coming. Avatar while absolutely amazing at immersing us into the world of Pandora and being completely epic; plot-wise it was very predictable. Many have compared it to Pocahontas in space, I prefer Dances With Wolves in space myself, but either way the point remains that it's not the most original of story lines. However I do give them credit for having a strong moral to their story of the importance of respecting the rights of others, as well as respecting the natural world around us and not taking it for granted. If John Carter had any message behind it, it was totally lost on me.
I won't go into how it ends for any of you that may wish to see it, but I will say I didn't regret watching it. I'm not sure I'd pay full price for the DVD but if I see it pop up in the bargain bin I'd likely pick it up. I do regret it was such a box-office flop as that makes it less likely they'll make any more in the series. I'd kind of like to see what happens next, but at least I can read the books.