A human being arrives suddenly on alien world, befriends a savage but honorable native tribe, hooks up with a badass native woman, and saves the day with his superior abilities and noble courage.
So, John Carter has the same plot as Dune.
And Stargate. And Avatar. And any other number of stories from that particular branch of genre fiction once known as the Planetary Romance. But John Carter, the Warlord of Mars, was there first, the granddaddy of them all: appearing in the pages of All-Story Magazine under the title of “Under the Moons of Mars” exactly one hundred years ago, the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal novel A Princess of Mars cannot be easily overestimated. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Superman and several generations’ worth of otherworldly fantasies walk in the footsteps of this Gentleman from Virginia-turned-interplanetary savior.
A Southern Cavalry officer during the Civil War, former Captain John Carter (played in Disney’s film version by Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch) is a shell-shocked husk of the man he once was, searching for gold in the wilds of 1880s New Mexico, when he’s caught in the conflict between the U.S. Army and the Apache. While attempting to rescue a jingoistic colonel (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), Carter stumbles into a remote passage between worlds, and onto the desiccated surface of the distant planet Barsoom – known on Earth as our neighboring world, Mars.
With Mars having only a third of the surface gravity of our home planet, the dislocated Earthman soon finds himself capable of superhuman feats, such as leaping far into the air (like the Golden Age Superman) and felling much larger opponents with a single blow, much to the amazement and consternation of the alien warlord – or “Jeddak” – Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). With Carter’s arrival on Barsoom, a planet-wide conflict reaches its climax, and his presence as a wild card upsets the plans of the wicked Sab Than (Dominic West) and the mysterious Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
While the book series has been incredibly and consistently popular among science fiction and fantasy readers over the last century, the lavishness of Burroughs’ imagination made a straight-up film adaptation of his adventures difficult at best. As far back as the 1930s there were attempts to bring the Mars series to the screen, but while imitators such as Flash Gordon became industries unto themselves, the John Carter books never really had that sort of cross-platform success.
On the Depression-era movie screen, the Lion Men of Flash Gordon’s Mongo were simply portrayed by thickly-bearded actors, but how do you simulate armies of 12-foot, six-limbed, green-skinned Tharks with pre-CGI film technology? In the hands of others, Burroughs’ Tharks would become the aforementioned Lion Men of Flash Gordon, Star Trek’s Klingons, the Fremen of Dune, Star Wars’ Tusken Raiders, and eventually James Cameron’s blue-skinned Na’vi. Practically and financially, it was far easier to film the Earth-bound scenario of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ second novel (also 1912), and the primary source of his wealth and fame thereafter.
Indeed, the cinema buck on A Princess of Mars – the first installment of what eventually became an 11-book series – kept getting passed around over the years, though it fell through some interesting hands along the way, including those of directors Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City).
Enter Pixar Studios’ Andrew Stanton, whose credits read like a laundry list of Disney’s most successful products: Director of Wall*E and Finding Nemo, co-director on A Bug’s Life, writer on all the Toy Story films, etc. Stanton brings with him screenwriters Mark Andrews (also of Pixar fame) and Michael Chabon (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) to help smooth out the rough edges of Burroughs’ original, episodic serial.
Though accused of being an unwieldy pile of excess – sight unseen – by entertainment writers slavishly following the established narrative that the film is a fiasco of Ishtar-ian proportions, John Carter is, in all honesty, a much leaner, meaner machine that any of the entries in Disney’s grotesquely bloated and creatively bankrupt Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which seems to get along exclusively on the basis of Johnny Depp’s considerable, if goofy, charm.
While no Depp in the goofiness department, John Carter star Kitsch has considerable charm of his own, deftly holding his own against veteran scenery-chewer Dafoe and Carter’s scene-stealing alien “dog,” the ingratiating Woola.
The result is fun and luxuriously fantastic, impressing the 10-year-old in me – who once feverishly wished himself transported bodily to the Mars of Burroughs’ breathless imaginings – enough to wring a few wistful tears from these eyes. During an early battle scene, when John Carter sprints and leaps far into the sky to snatch a plummeting Dejah Thoris out of thin air and from certain death, it soars with the ebullient joy that only a pure cinema experience can provide, triggering that rare, sublime thrill of deep pleasure tingling up the spine and into the brain.
While the story goes a little bit off the rails with multiple subplots toward the middle – the result of tying together disparate elements from the first three Mars books to establish a coherent mythology for the culture of Barsoom – it recovers impressively for a rousing, swashbuckling finale.
And while, yes, John Carter is somewhat of a throwback, it is not to the long-ago days of Buster Crabbe, Betty Grable and war bonds. Rather, it recalls the post-Star Wars era of science fiction and fantasy film adventures, the period in the late 1970s to mid-1980s when studios embraced fantastic storytelling, anything goes fashion, in a race to exploit the newly discovered sci-fi megabuck market, a scenario that led to some wild and wooly storytelling: Superman: The Movie, The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, Krull, The Last Starfighter, Enemy Mine, Dune, etc. – films with at least one foot planted firmly in sense-of-wonderland, which employed breadth of imagination instead of witless violence and ever-larger explosions to entertain the masses.
Whether or not the film was a wise move financially for Disney is not really within my purview, and I find it both amusing and distressing how so many film critics suddenly find themselves cast in the role of marketing and business experts when it comes to productions tainted with the negative buzz of studio infighting, budget overruns and post-production reshoots, matters that often have nothing to do with the eventual quality of the final film (or lack thereof).
All things being equal, John Carter is no Ishtar, Howard the Duck or Cutthroat Island. It’s a magnificently realized fantasy world, one that may be out of its age, but a world worth visiting nonetheless – for a Saturday afternoon matinee, and a lifetime of dreams.
Phillip Lozano 3/14/2012
Extended clip from John Carter:
For more info on John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs, check out The John Carter of Mars Guide to Barsoom online.