“We’ve been playing this game long before the birth of this planet, and we’ll be playing it long after the death of yours.” Thus the Martian deity Matai Shang (Mark Strong) explains to the visiting Earthman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) why his race of gods has bent the minds of Martians toward a malicious end. But the prankish, shape-shifting Shang might also be referring to the game of otherworldly action-adventure — the fantasy genre that Edgar Rice Burroughs helped hatch when he began publishing his first Carter story, called Under the Moons of Mars, in serial form in The All-Story magazine 100 years ago last month. The series was eventually published in book form as A Princess of Mars in 1917, by which time Burroughs had created his more famous displaced hero, Tarzan.
Andrew Stanton, director of the animated enthrallments Finding Nemo and WALL·E, has finally brought the grandfather of all time- and space-traveling American supermen to pure movie form in John Carter. Oddly, excepting a direct-to-video B movie called Princess of Mars in 2009, the Carter tales had never been officially filmed before, though not for want of trying. Animation director Robert Clampett started work on a feature version in the early 1930s; and many later worthies, including Ray Harryhausen, Robert Rodriguez, Jon Favreau and several generations of Disney employees, have seriously mulled adaptations of the Burroughs stories. Other filmmakers borrowed the central premise and attached different names to the hero. Carter was Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in ’30s serials, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and, most explicitly, Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cameron openly cited the John Carter books as a crucial source for his Pandoran rhapsody. As he told Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, “I’ve always had a fondness for those kind of science fiction/adventure stories, the male warrior in an exotic, alien land, overcoming physical challenges and confronting the fears of difference. Do we conquer? Exploit? Integrate? Avatar explores those issues.” Cameron was just the latest pulp poet to manufacture heroic fiction from the American imperialist impulse — extending from the time of John Smith and Pocahontas (another inspiration for Avatar) and still percolating today — in which macho adventurers find some exotic land, intervene in a tribal war and help the good guys win. (Or, as many real U.S. soldiers discovered, die trying.)
(MORE: See Corliss’s review of Avatar)
Stanton was eager to join his Pixar colleague Brad Bird in the live-action realm. Bird made the recent Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, but the John Carter film has a much higher degree of difficulty and risk of failure. The Disney production arrives in theaters with a long production history (it was written in 2007-09, filmed in 2010 and tinkered with ever since), a high price tag (at least a quarter-billion dollars) and the threatening rumor of stinkerdom. Not quite the “large dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop” that Jaime N. Christley proclaimed it in his Slant review, the movie is certainly a mess of pottage: an occasionally savory hodgepodge of variations on a reheated theme.
On the plus side, Stanton works chromatic wonders with Mars’ mandatory burnt-sienna landscape, and he frames shots with a nice notion of visual suspense, hinting at something foreboding just outside our line of vision. The film also offers a Pixarian comic lift in the planet’s doglike species, the calot. Like Carter, who is able to leap vast spaces in the lighter gravity of of Mars — or, as Burroughs renamed it, Barsoom — his calot, Woola, gives the picture an essential dose of buoyancy. Too often, though, John Carter and his story lumber as if tethered to the ground by heavier density. For all its flying machines, which navigate the air like magical pterodactyl skeletons on a crazy chase-race, the movie has trouble soaring.
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Stanton and his screenwriting partners — Mark Andrews (the director of this summer’s Pixar film Brave) and the Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon — stayed faithful to the Burroughs original, despite its having been deeply plundered less than three years ago in the highest-grossing film of all time. Again we meet a soldier from Earth who travels to a distant planet, romances an alien princess (here Lynn Collins’s Dejah Thoris) and befriends an oversize race: the four-armed Tharks, who look like Cameron’s Na’vi, though unfortunately crossbred with that Gungan galoot, Jar Jar Binks. The result is that John Carter plays like an alternate, inferior version of Avatar…
…Plus fleeting hints of John Ford’s The Searchers — for this is also a Western. Set (like The Searchers) in 1868, it relates the long journey of a grizzled Civil War veteran haunted by the deaths of the woman and child he loved. (Kitsch speaks in the gruff vocal register of The Searchers‘ star, John Wayne.) Beginning with a framing story that connects Carter to a fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs, then taking ages to get from an Arizona saloon to the Martian desert — from barroom to Barsoom — the movie tasks the lone cowboy with settling a dispute among the Red Planet’s three warring groups: Burroughs’ equivalent of the Indians (the Tharks), the settlers (Princess Dejah’s subjects in the city of Helium) and the marauding gunslingers (the warriors of Zodanga). The plot, as you can tell, is complicated, but it’s rarely involving. The one genuinely warm relationship is between the Thark lord Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and his rebel daughter Sola (Samantha Morton).
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Proceeding in fits and starts, and flats and stops, John Carter has some zesty set pieces but no rooting interest. Kitsch, the football hero from Friday Night Lights, plays Carter as 200 pounds of surly beefcake. And despite valiant efforts by Collins (the True Blood alumna who appeared with Kitsch in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the two romantic leads strike no sparks except for those of comrade-warriors. Michael Giacchino’s sumptuous score swells as Carter finally renounces his terrestrial bonds to become one with his Helium princess — at the end, the movie renames itself John Carter of Mars — but the moment lacks agony or ecstasy. It strains for an emotion it hasn’t earned.
For all its incidental pleasures, John Carter could use what the best Pixar movies possess: a strong, original story and characters who attach themselves to moviegoers’ hearts instead of simply passing across their field of vision. The film could have been a triumph or, even more endearing, a wild folly on the order of David Lynch’s mad science-fiction epic Dune. But it neither transcends nor subverts the genre that Burroughs more or less invented. I’m glad Stanton made John Carter; I just don’t know why he did.
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