John Carter (2012)
While his Tarzan novels are more well-known - and have even fallen into favor with scholars as actual literature rather than the pulp adventure stories they were meant to be - when I think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I think of Barsoom. Sure, it may be the epitome of silliness to many modern readers: a musclebound protagonist, the beautiful princess he must rescue and the savage green alien our hero befriends. The novels may have been quite progressive for their time - Dejah Thoris, though John Carter had to rescue her repeatedly, could definitely hold her own in a fight - but A Princess of Mars is over a century old. Except for material published posthumously the series largely came to a close prior to World War II.
As can be expected with a series of stories that old, especially one taking place on Mars, it doesn't translate well today. In fact, despite the fact that the Barsoom series (of which John Carter was only the protagonist in a handful) influenced everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars, it really doesn't translate onto the big screen. Even the original covers of the books couldn't show the inhabitants of Barsoom in their natural state - naked save for ornamental adornments. It is not something that screams PG-13 Disney film, and probably wouldn't even get by with an R considering that everyone, male and female, would be in the all-together - not to mention the level of violence.
It did surprise me when I found out that a live action version of this movie was coming out. Asylum rushed out its own version of A Princess of Mars to try to make their usual rip-off money from it, but they needn't have bothered. A title like John Carter only appeals to fans of the books who are familiar with the character. I'm not going to get into all the in-depth, and infamous, stories of why this movie became one of the biggest financial disasters of all time, but it was thought A Princess of Mars would keep guys from seeing it (it wouldn't; anyone who's an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan would know what it is), and then removal of the "Of Mars" part from John Carter because women won't go see science fiction - a baffling train of thought in 2012. It was one of those rare times when studio interference would have been welcomed, as Disney's marketing department tried to rescue director Andrew Stanton from his own bad mistakes and assumptions. If he had listened we could be a couple sequels in right now; as it is, more people remember the movie for its failure than for anything else.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate captain searching for gold in the Arizona Territory. While doing so a Union officer named Powell (Bryan Cranston) tries to conscript him. Carter escapes, but a misunderstanding with a band of Apaches leads to Carter and a wounded Powell taking refuge in a cave. Not only does Carter find the gold he was looking for, but inadvertently is transported to another world.
When arriving on Barsoom he finds that, due to the lower gravity, he has greater strength and agility than the native inhabitants. The first ones he encounters are the warrior Tharks: tall, green-skinned creatures with six limbs. He eventually befriends their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) as well as an outcast female Thark named Sola (Samantha Morton). It turns out he has arrived on Mars at a time of war between the city states of Zondanga and Helium and, after a battle occurs in Thark territory, encounters Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of Helium that is trying to avoid a marriage to Zodanga's ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West). Despite Carter's best efforts Dejah Thoris may be forced to marry Sab Than as an effort to bring peace, but other forces are at work to hasten the destruction of Helium and Barsoom.
The movie itself is quite different than the book. Surprisingly, except for setting it on a "Mars 2" orbiting a distant star and moving the wraparound story to the modern day, Asylum's version was closer. Unfortunately, it was Asylum, so they still managed to mess it up in many of their usual ways, despite Anthony Sabato and Traci Lords not being horrible in the main roles. John Carter had better actors, better budget and definitely a much better director, even if it was his first live action film. By all rights it should have been one of the biggest blockbusters of 2012, as well as the start of a whole new franchise. Despite the major changes to the source material there is still plenty here that is in the spirit of Burroughs's books. The idea of solar sails for the fliers is still there, as is the mention of radium drives, a cold fusion system that drives all of the Red Martians' machinery.
When one mentions Mars the cold, dead planet we know comes to mind, not the fantastical dying realm it was thought to be at the turn of the last century. Fantasy, though, is what one has to consider it, rather than straight science fiction. Despite Burroughs coming up with interesting ideas based on emerging technologies at the time (and thus the Steampunk look of the movie in places), this was still largely fantasy. It requires modern audiences to put aside what they know to be true. Still, this could have been handled easily, not with another planet in another solar system, but by setting the action on Barsoom billions of years in the past when the real Martian oceans were drying up. There is no telling what Mars was really like at that point, so it's open to all kinds of guesses. If the Therns, the ones responsible in the movie (but not in the book) for Carter's transit to Mars, can travel in space then they should be as easily able to in time as well. It may change some of the extra plot Stanton and his cowriters added in, but it's an easier sell.
As it was audiences didn't know what to think and, being risk-adverse as usual, stayed away once the movie started tanking. That's a shame because what Stanton did come up with is still a quite satisfying feature that clocks in at just a little over two hours and doesn't waste any of it. The effects are great, particularly the different air navies fighting, the Tharks are the best they'll probably ever look and the costume design was magnificent. Obviously no one is running around naked, but most of their clothes are at least functional. The characters are not as well developed as others in similar films, but neither were they in the original novels, being archetypes acting out their part in Burroughs's world. They did develop more as the series went on, but the original story was serialized in a pulp magazine, so it fits readers' expectations at the time and Stanton, to his credit, didn't do much to change that.
John Carter is a gorgeous, exciting film. It is probably a bit too much of a polished and expensive one to become a cult favorite at some point, which I can probably say about another big-budget flop I like, Jupiter Ascending, that I thought might start getting a re-evaluation at this point. In fact, both have that same kind of pulp throwback feeling, even if the latter was the Wachowski's baby from the beginning, despite the fact stole a lot from French sci-fi comics. While everything that has been said in the past about why John Carter failed so badly is true, I also think it is because this type of story telling, while it used to be the norm, only has a niche audience these days, and it's not enough to get people to go out and give this type of movie a chance. Unfortunately, that means we'll probably never see an attempt to bring A Princess of Mars and the other stories to the big screen again.
John Carter (2012)
Time: 132 minutes
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Dominic West
Director: Andrew Stanton