CAPSULE: JOHN CARTER is the lackluster title of Disney's film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A PRINCESS OF MARS, just over a hundred years old. People who have grown up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (or people like me who have failed to grown up but still have read the novels) will probably be startled at the imagination of this epic production. Newcomers and even some non-newcomers may find the story more complex and harder to follow than one would expect from the adaptation of a pulp fiction science fantasy. The viewer should not expect a great story-- perhaps not even a comprehensible one. But it is fascinating to spend time with this visualization of Burroughs's Mars/Barsoom. Somehow a novel that just seemed like silly fun is transformed into an epic film. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Back when the film THE PUPPET MASTERS was released I had a discussion with a friend about the film. I said that it had covered a lot of the same territory as the three--now four-- adaptations of Jack Finney's (INVASION OF) THE BODY SNATCHERS did. My friend was quick to correct me. Actually Robert Heinlein's novel THE PUPPET MASTERS pre-dated the Finney novel. Heinlein had done it first. I readily admitted that was true. The filmmakers had every right to rehash overly familiar material. But that does not make the content any less familiar was still going to count against the film for most viewers. Curiously I had almost the same discussion over the 2007 film I AM LEGEND, which rehashed a lot of familiar horror. I mention that to head off the same discussion with JOHN CARTER. Today's fantasy and science fiction, especially in films, owes a lot to pulp writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Robert E. Howard. These are not highly accomplished writers, but their leaping imaginations have inspired generations. When George Lucas puts a hero into an arena with a fierce gorog the size of an elephant, Lucas is doing homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs. As far as written fantasy is concerned, Burroughs got there before (probably) anyone else. But still putting it into a film now after decades of Flash Gordon and Star Wars and many more, it is going to be hackneyed and stale. The filmmakers' only hope is to try to make it feel new. Sadly they chose that image to center their ad campaign around.
For many decades there have been rumors of various filmmakers wanting to turn the Burroughs science fantasies into film. Of course, Burroughs writing was frequently the inspiration of films on the screen, but almost always it was a wildly inaccurate version of his Tarzan books. In the mid-1970s Amicus and American International Pictures cooperated on adaptations of THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, THE PEOPLE THAT TIME FORGOT, and AT THE EARTH'S CORE. Sadly, of these only THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT took itself seriously and had a good script. In 2009 the exploitation film company The Asylum did versions of PRINCESS OF MARS and THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. The former was terrible. I have not seen the latter but do not have very high expectations. But for years there were many projects attempting the making of A PRINCESS OF MARS into a film. Names like Ray Harryhausen and Tom Cruise were attached to projects that never reached fruition. Presumably it was too daunting a task to show the armies of alien creatures the film would have called for. Then the LORD OF THE RINGS films showed that such epic fantasy could be done with newer technology. One such project has finally come reached fruition.
The script by its director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon somewhat embellishes the story by Burroughs. The film already gets into adventures before John Carter (played by an uninspired Taylor Kitsch) ever gets to Mars. The film even dramatizes the forward to the book in which Edgar Rice Burroughs is called to his uncle John Carter's deathbed only to arrive too late with Carter having died only that morning. The young Burroughs we are told had always been enthralled by his uncle's stories of his life in the Wild West and fighting in the Civil War. The amazed boy is given a sheaf of papers. This is Uncle John's account of his most amazing adventure, one that involved him being teleported to Mars where he is the keystone in ending a civil war.
Fleeing from a United States Army determined illegally to impress him into service, he runs afoul of a mystic something-or-other perpetrated by Holy Therns (who do not actually appear yet in the book A PRINCESS OF MARS). Carter finds himself on what he discovers is the planet Mars. Due the different gravity he finds he can leap tall canyons in a single bound. (Leaping tall buildings comes later.) Tharks, tall green men with white tusks and four arms each, capture him. The viewer is introduced to them and several other species, human and non-human.
Full disclosure: I had read the book, but not in years. With the flood of unfamiliar names, familiar names that I could not quite place, and actors who did not enunciate, I can say I still followed the plot at a high level, but don't give me a quiz on the names of animals, people, and places on Barsoom. I am reasonably certain that even if I could have run the film with subtitles and could stop it when I wanted, my life would not have been transformed by any great themes that were presented. This is all pretty much an American 20th century "Arabian Nights". Like the original "Arabian Nights" what is essential is not the deep story but the tone, texture, and atmosphere. When one reads one of Burroughs's science fantasies one visualizes what was going on. As I read I can visualize the scenery a little more ornately than the Amicus film adaptations did in the 1970s. That imagination was far surpassed by the visions on the screen. And remarkably that gives the story the feeling of more heft and even more complexity. This is not pulpish storytelling even if the century-old novel is.
The film is usually respectful of the Burroughs material, but within that constraint there is more than a little humor. Due to a miscommunication the Tharks all call Carter "Virginia". Carter seems to crash a variety of Martian flying machines that he tries to pilot. Carter is given as a pet and guardian Woola, a big sloppy dog-like creature.
The film has been released to very mixed critical reactions. However, the closer the reviewer is to the science fiction fan community and the people who respect Burroughs, the better reaction the film seems to get. The fans may be pleased that someone has made a decent film respectful of the original novel. I rate JOHN CARTER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
One problem with the film is that the title is so totally bland and colorless for such a colorful story. Apparently there were struggles over choosing the title, and the film still shows the title JOHN CARTER OF MARS in the closing credits. The filmmakers would have done better with the title of the Burroughs novel, A PRINCESS OF MARS. It has been suggest that a Disney film with "Princess" in the title might sound like it was for only young girls. I wonder if that was the reaction when Buena Vista released PRINCESS MONONOKE.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/john_carter/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper