On paper, Disney’s John Carter has much going for it. First and foremost, it’s an adaptation of the enduring pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Perhaps best known as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs’ creations have been hugely influential and have stood the test of time to become classics of the pulp form. Based on Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter’s pedigree is classic science fantasy with its blend of heroic fantasy in a Martian landscape replete with monsters, swordplay, futuristic weaponry and flying ships. The movie adaptation promises high adventure, spectacular effects and creatures and over the top action, and for the most part John Carter delivers on this promise.
Equally promising is the involvement of Academy Award winner Andrew Stanton as director and co-writer. His background is animated movies (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, WALL-E), which are typically strong on story-telling and narrative. Unfortunately it’s not this aspect of Stanton’s background which stands out in John Carter: for all the spectacular vistas and glorious effects John Carter is so overloaded with CGI it often looks more like an animated movie than live-action. This is yet another post-production 3D conversion, and even though we’ve come a long way since the disastrous conversion of Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans, John Carter does nothing to convince me of the value of post production 3D in story-telling. I’m certainly not complaining about the addition of a third dimension to Lynn Collins’ beautiful and curvaceous Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars, but for the most part the 3D is more of a distraction than a contribution to the narrative.
And then there is the cast, led by Taylor Kitsch as John Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, both well-suited to these roles and supported by a surprisingly strong cast that includes Dominic West, James Purefoy, Mark Strong, and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, a Thark, a four-armed, seven foot tall green Barsoomian native.
But what appealed to me most about this project was the involvement of multi-award winning author Michael Chabon with the screenplay. Chabon is responsible for the highly acclaimed alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which garnered a Hugo and a Nebula award amongst others, and his involvement held the promise of a strong screenplay. It’s disappointing therefore that the weakest element of this adaptation is in fact the writing, with characters that appear to be sadly uncomplicated and dialogue that struggles at times to rise above the histrionics of a daily soap opera. Mark Strong, Dominic West and James Purefoy are unchallenged by their roles, never close to breaking into a sweat, and while Kitsch and Collins look great together and work well with the material they have, what they have is barely enough to sink their teeth into.
Not for the first time I’m left wondering whether Studios are insisting on post-production 3D conversions in order to give some of their movies the illusion of more than one dimension…?
Stanton’s adaptation is largely based on A Princess of Mars, the first of the Barsoom series (published in 1912 in the pulp magazine All-Story, the movie in fact marks the story’s centenary). Disney describes the movie as “a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom” (aka Mars) with Carter, a former Confederate captain, mysteriously transported to Mars through a form of astral travel which leaves his original body on Earth and materialises an exact copy on Mars. On Barsoom, Carter is something of a superhero with formidable strength and agility and the ability to leap incredible distances due to his origin on a planet with far greater gravity than that on Mars. In Burroughs’ fiction however, Carter is far from normal back on Earth either. In the opening pages of A Princess of Mars, we learn that Carter has no memory of his childhood, having always been a man of about thirty years old. He is described as something more than mortal, if not in fact immortal, an ageless man known to generations as “Uncle Jack”.
Having arrived on Barsoom and with super-martian powers, the war-weary Carter quickly finds himself embroiled in a planet-wide conflict that is being manipulated behind the scenes by a mysterious order of priests called the Therns. Barsoom is in need of a saviour and John Carter is the right man in the right place with the right initials for the job!
The narrative interweaves John Carter’s story with that of his nephew, Ned, aka Edgar Rice Burroughs. Carter has died and left everything to Ned, including a manuscript in which he relates his adventures, and Carter’s story unfolds as Ned reads the manuscript. This interweaving of the two stories, Carter’s and Ned’s, is done well and it’s a neat device that gives the fantasy some veracity: Burroughs is simply reporting the true adventures of his uncle.
Ultimately, however, the action and adventure are spectacular without being fully engaging as too often it appears derivative and unoriginal (there’s a lot of Star Wars in John Carter), or it’s a little bit silly (John Carter taking on thousands of four-armed Green Martians with only his sword and faithful Calot – a dog like creature with a big frog mouth and lots of teeth – for instance). The issue of originality is a complex one of course as Burroughs’ writing has been so influential: in the first instance, movies likeStar Wars owe much to Burroughs, and part of the challenge facing John Carter is that much of what we see in this adaptation no longer appears fresh or original simply because Burroughs’ writing has been so influential.
The effects are generally very good (although overloaded at times), with the creature effects standing out (although the race of four-armed Green Martians has a little too much of Jar Jar Binks to it for my liking). The writers appear to have been striving for the levity of The Mummy or Prince of Persia with a little more dramatic intensity, but the humour generally falls flat and the drama has all the intensity and believability of an afternoon soapie. For the most part the narrative teeters on the edge of silliness and too often falls over the edge (don’t get me started on the twist near the end in which Ned opens John Carter’s tomb!). In the end, and despite the 21st Century cinematic wizardry, I was strongly reminded of such 80’s fantasies as Krull, Hawk the Slayer, and Sword and the Sorcerer, which were fine in their time but I’d hoped we were a little more evolved these days.
John Carter is released on 8 March 2012. Recommended – if you can suspend your disbelief and your critical faculties. Here’s the trailer: