Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to John Carter, the long-awaited version of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is that it looks just like it ought to look. Again and again, watching it, I was struck by how seamlessly the filmmakers had captured the visual flavor of the cover paintings of ‘70s-era sci-fi-fantasy paperbacks, by the likes of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo.
These covers, often far more than the reprinted pulp tales that they enclosed, had an effect on the imaginative landscape of Boomer-era boys that shouldn’t be underestimated, and the degree to which John Carter brings them to life is no small achievement. The green, six-limbed Tharks, the elite Red Martians, the rampaging White Apes, the cityscapes, the flying machines, even the hero’s endearing dog-like companion Woola—all of them struck this Burroughs reader as just right visually, and the battles, duels and gladiatorial combats are excitingly staged by director Andrew Stanton.
This makes it all the more disappointing to report that the movie, which came in second to Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax on its opening weekend, isn’t the knockout that it wants to be. It’s terrific in stretches, but overall it’s tiring, with little of the book’s hearty, free-wheeling sense of storytelling panache.
Originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in 1912, A Princess of Mars tells the story of a former Confederate officer, John Carter. Under attack by Apaches while prospecting in theArizonaTerritory, Carter suddenly finds himself mysteriously transported to the surface of the planet Mars, or “Barsoom” as it’s called by its inhabitants.
It’s a dying desert world, peopled by perpetually warring tribes of various bizarre races. Carter is caught up in these conflicts, and the lower gravity makes him a virtual superman. He becomes an ally/friend of the fierce-but-honorable Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas, and with the loyal Thark female Sola.
He also finds love with the beautiful Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.
Silly as all this sounds—and is—the original, rambling adventure novel can give a heart-lifting delight. The movie, for all its craft, doesn’t come close. It’s badly overlong, and while the dialogue is intelligent, the screenwriters—Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are credited—weigh down the movie with layers of confusing, unnecessary and wearyingly “grown-up” exposition and backstory.
In this way John Carter is, regrettably, very much like the latter-day Star Wars trilogy. As with those films, the filmmakers seem to have been so intent on not treating the material as kid stuff that they forgot that kid stuff was exactly what we wanted from it—and just what Burroughs always gave us.
Another part of the disappointment may be that Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, isn’t quite up to it. He has a fine physique but a callow, somehow unmemorable beauty and no particular presence as an actor.
The character is saddled, again unnecessarily, with a tragic backstory in the spaghetti-western vein, and he speaks in the same manner as Christian Bale in The Dark Night, that growl by which unconfident young leading men of our era try to project heartsick manliness, but which really just makes them sound like they need a lozenge.
On the other hand, Lynn Collins fits the role of Dejah Thoris, here admirably more Amazon than damsel in distress, perfectly. She’s gorgeous and regal, yet likable.
It’s especially gratifying that in modern-day Hollywood, Collins was entrusted with a romantic lead at the crone-like age of…34.