It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Disney spends 250 extra large for Pixar’s golden boy to start a sci-fi franchise, built out of a story Hollywood’s been trying to develop since the Great Depression, assisted by an author who’s obsessed with reviving pulp, and we wind up with a somewhat more coherent Chronicles of Riddick? Really?
An epic adventure with traces of steampunk, Western, and sci-fi seemed like box-office gold in 2012. (That is, unless you remember Wild Wild West.) Writer/director Andrew Stanton and his co-writer, author Michael Chabon, have finally adapted the first three of Edgar Rice Burrough’s “boy’s adventure” Barsoom serials, seemingly in development since the dawn of time. And while not bad enough to qualify as a Waterworld-style fiasco, several suits are likely to be Occupying Wall Street after the Martian dust settles on this one, if you know what I mean.
The culprit is familiarity. In 1917, when an unknown Burroughs wrote the first of these stories in his spare time, his ideas of four-armed aliens and atmosphere plants and princesses that were born from eggs seemed so outlandish, he offered it up under a pen name so that he wouldn’t be judged insane. So astonishing was this tale of a Confederate soldier-gentleman suddenly transported to Mars to fight giant white apes, among other things, that the work influenced everyone in its wake, from Heinlein to Bradbury to Clarke. It became a basis for 20th-century pulp, which is why you can’t blame your idiot cousin who thinks John Carter’s kind of like Avatar or Planet of the Apes or Lord of the Rings or even — choke — the Star Wars prequels. He doesn’t know how perceptive he is.
Okay, we can blame Disney for no doubt insisting on the LOTR similarities; Peter Jackson’s trilogy did set the standard for CGI battle in this new millenium. And this is where Stanton’s gone wrong — he’s trusted the source material to enthrall audiences, even though it’s been picked over for the last century, and thus merely rewrote the novel in Hollywoodese, with a few nice Pixarish touches (Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas hears that our hero is from Virginia, and thinks that’s his name). Occasionally, Stanton makes a call that pays off, like juxtaposing the excellent green Martian battle, where Carter turns beserker for a bit, with images of him burying his slaughtered family back home.
Moments like that get lost in the epic scope of John Carter the movie, however, mainly because there’s no center to hold them down. Friday Night Lights’ unfortunately/brilliantly named Taylor Kitsch looks the part, and he’s no himbo warrior, but if you’re going to ascribe a haunted warrior vibe to what is generally a mythic ideal of manhood in Burroughs’ original, you’d better make sure he comes with loads of Indiana Jones-level personality. Kitsch doesn’t have it, and neither does his rather brittle love interest, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the aforementioned egg princess. Add in a lot of political infighting, endless desert scenes, and stretch the whole thing to nearly two and a half hours, and no, it was not the trailer that doomed this one.
Novels need reinvention for the screen, especially when they come from a time so far removed from ours they may as well be actual Martian chronicles. Much of what Burroughs’ work was about transporting a lone white civilized male ideal into a strange land to experience (and try to survive in) its odd, savage tribal esoterica. The horses in this story are rhinos with eight legs instead of four, the dogs are puggish gila monsters, the princesses are red; strange ideas for an early-20th century smalltown boy to come across, for sure, but not so much now.
Stanton could have reimagined this world from the bottom up for a new generation, but he merely points the camera at it, which means that the best thing about the author’s original work — its sense of gentlemanly duty and honor, the thoughtless devotion to higher ideals wired right into its DNA, ideas which might seem as exotic and ethereal to our time as eight legged-rhinos did in his – gets lost. John Carter removes the romance from this “planetary romance,” the sense of exotic wonder, and replaces it with action sequences not quite as impressive as, say, Transformers. And nowhere in the Transformers TV series did you find poetry like this, from the original first story, A Princess of Mars:
“I understand your words,” she replied, “but you I do not understand. You are a queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble. I only wish that I might read your heart.”
“Look down at your feet, Dejah Thoris; it lies there now where it has lain since that other night at Korad, and where it will ever lie beating alone for you until death stills it forever.”