John Carter, the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ century-old saga of an earthman’s adventures on Mars, is an unrestrained epic, a wide-ranging story that neither its writers nor director can quite contain. If a great movie races along like a cowboy on a stallion, this movie is a cattle stampede.
The film is flawed. There is surprising clumsiness in the storytelling at times, such as when the film opens with a battle between two sides we know and care nothing about. When Star Wars pulled that, you could see who was the bad guys, and how overwhelming their forces were. Here, it’s a meaningless jumble. Also, Taylor Kitsch does not have the charisma of, say, a Harrison Ford or a Bruce Willis, and the film really would’ve benefitted from a magnetic leading man.
Most of the cast is merely serviceable—Mark Strong plays a villain in the great but now-familiar way he has, and co-villain Dominic West seems entirely miscast as the would-be world conqueror who is, for some reason, Strong’s pawn.
Lynn Collins is good as heroic princess Dejah Thoris—at first her somewhat theatrical acting style seems inappropriate, but it lends her an alien quality suitable to a woman from another world. The script does a fine remake of the Dejah Thoris character, turning the novel’s passive, half-naked damsel in distress into a scientist, a warrior princess in control of her destiny, and a merely quarter-naked damsel who needs little help getting out of distress. Also, she’s gorgeous in a way that seems produced neither by modern circuit training nor starvation dieting, and that’s nice.
Worst marketing ever?
Disney is said to be terrified of the word “Mars” in a title after the catastrophic failure of Mars Needs Moms. Thus, the film comes out with a title that tells you nothing—because few people today have any familiarity with a century-old pulp property—and the marketing consists of billboards of silhouetted creatures against a not-especially red desert landscape. Better titles?
- John Carter of Mars, which is how the character/series is often called.
- Warlord of Mars or John Carter, Warlord of Mars, probably the best-known and most descriptive title in the Burroughs series.
- John Carter and the Princess of Mars, which would’ve given it a retro feel entirely appropriate to the material.
Instead, I’m riding into San Francisco last week in the Casual Carpool (free rides for commuters, to make use of the carpool lane) with two strangers in the front seat, two young black women who were friends, chatting throughout the drive.
“I am so sick of those ‘John Carter’ billboards,’” the passenger says.
“I don’t even know what ‘John Carter’ is, says the other.
“When I first saw that, I thought, that’s a black man’s name. Doesn’t that sound to you like it’d be a black guy?”
“Yeah, I thought that, too.”
“And then I find out it’s got that guy I like from ‘Friday Night Lights,’” she continues, “but I’m like, so, what is? Is it supposed to be science fiction or something?”
I pipe up from the back seat to tell them what it actually is, and neither seems very impressed. Whereas, a clearer title and a swashbuckling image of a handsome hero and sexy, strong princess might’ve, y’know, gotten a little more traction.
Sometimes the humans and special-effects aliens seem lost among all that’s going on around them—lost, or beside the point. You ever try shuffling a deck of cards and they get away from you and fly everywhere? Sometimes this movie feels like that. And yet it’s fun, and there’s ambition in that sprawl, and the movie eventually won me over. It’s not that I would see it again—I will see it again, flaws or not.
A Ragged Adaptation
The story is mostly an adaptation of Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. The story, 100 years old this year, was not only the future Tarzan creator’s first in a long series of Mars books, it was also his first published fiction. Like the movie, the novel rambles—it often feels like Burroughs, who was writing for serialization, was making up each chapter as he went along before bringing the whole thing home.
By contrast, Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton, whose major co-writer here was Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon (Kavalier & Clay, Wonder Boys) doesn’t seem to be making it up—they seem to be zig-zagging across the massive territory staked out by Burroughs in more than a dozen novels. The primary story reflects Princess, where former calvaryman Carter was spirited from the Old West to dying Mars, where he eventually rescues a beautiful, near-naked princess from green savages and then an unwanted state wedding, only to lose her as he returns again to Earth. But the film grafts in are other elements, including an explanation for Carter’s interplanetary journey (absent from that first book) and a race of superbeings who seem to be manipulating Martians, while having a greedy eye on Earth as well. Perhaps these elements came from later Mars novels—I haven’t gotten to them yet.
There’s an evident love and respect for the source material, as a number of small, easily overlooked elements from the book make it into the film. That love may be the problem, though—one can’t help feeling that a colder, dispassionate eye might have somehow streamlined the story, made it fit better within the parameters of its two-hour, fifteen-minute runtime.
Still, there’s something good here. The best science fiction leaves you longing for the world it shows you. The magic and success of Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica is that each installment leaves you wanting to go further, deeper with these characters into their amazing universes. This film had that effect on me. Though, given Disney’s astonishing mishandling of the marketing, John Carter is very unlikely to breed a franchise. Catch it on the big screen while you can.