REVIEW: John Carter
The problem with being a trendsetter is that if you’re successful, you get imitated time and time again. Such was the fate that befell Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp heroes Tarzan and John Carter. The thriller-seeking readers of pulp magazines were enthralled by ERB’s pulse-pounding, straight-forward prose, which was strong in ideas and weak in word craft. A century ago, Burroughs, writing as Norman Bean, serialized his first Martian saga in All-Story between February and July 1912. It found an eager audience and was later collected in book form as A Princess of Mars. Through the years, there came more adventures with and without Carter set on the red planet natives named Barsoom.
I discovered the stories through the compelling Frank Frazetta covers on the Science Fiction Book Club editions and thought the stories were interesting. Clearly I was not alone because time and again, people in comics tried to adapt the stories with varying degrees of success. Similarly, Bob Clampett in the 1930s and then others tried to mount a screen adaptation. While Barsoom proved inspirational to countless writers, artists, and filmmakers, the planet remained elusive. Over the last century, many a story has been set on Mars — from swashbuckler pastiche Gulliver of Mars to Philip K. Dick’s “I Can Remember it for you Wholesale” (a.k.a Total Recall) – meaning our celestial neighbor has been well-mined.
For some, though, the Barsoom stories remained magnetic and when Pixar genius Andrew Stanton had the chance in 2008 to begin a live-action adaptation, he seized the rare opportunity. By 2009, he brought Michael Chabon aboard to help revise the script and then work began in earnest. There would be a heavy reliance on CGI, which was not at all daunting to the tyro live-action director, but the true challenge was finding a way of bringing Burroughs’ tale to the screen while making it feel fresh.
As he labored on the $250 million film, Walt Disney set about shooting itself in the foot with one of the worst marketing efforts I’ve ever seen for a genre production. First, after its failure with Mars Needs Moms, they cowardly dropped Mars from the title then produced hackneyed trailers that robbed the film of its spectacle. The moment it opened in March, they immediately washed their hands of it, not wanting to deal with the publicity surrounding the troubled production and failure of its marketing chief, an outsider that was recently ousted. The headlines had more to do with the write down charged to the movie than the film itself.
Thankfully, the shrinking window between theatrical and home video release has given us a quick chance to re-evaluate the film on its own. Coming Tuesday, Walt Disney Home Entertainment is releasing John Carter on Blu-ray and DVD, complete with combo pack. Bottom line: the movie is quite entertaining and visual stunning although the story and acting leave something to be desire.
Stanton, Chabon, and Mark Andrews retained Burroughs’ conceit that Carter (Taylor Kitsch) left behind journals of his extraterrestrial exploits although they tweaked it so that Burroughs and Carter were related. We begin the flashbacks with Carter’s time as a gold prospector after his service in the Confederate Army. The prevailing Union forces seek him out for a job that never makes a lot of sense but does send Carter into the dessert where he finds the cave that sends him or at least his astral form to Mars.
What they did add, though, was an otherworldly version of Fringe’s Observers, led by Mark Strong, who are there to ensure a specific fate would occur. They interfere with the course of events on both Earth and Mars, which plays a key role for the conclusion. Layering them over the Burroughs tale may have been a bid to make things more contemporary but merely added to the feeling of familiarity the film was trying to avoid with uneven results.
Carter finds himself on Mars, meets the Tharks and their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), and soon after rescues princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and the story tightens its focus to the civil war between the two remaining red-skinned Barsoomians’ cities, Helium and Zodanga. Carter finds himself forced into one role after another while few characters stop to actually talk to the white-skinned super-powered human. Here, the screenplay lets the cast down by not more carefully delineating the key players, hewing to Burroughs’ stark good guy versus bad guy style. As a result, you feel like hissing at Sab Than (Dominic West) and rooting for Carter. His Thark companion Sola (Samantha Morton) is never given much to do and Woola, the dog-like animal companion provides some charming comic relief although his CGI form doesn’t integrate as well as one would expect.
The scope of the dying civilization is visually well presented and hinted at through some of the dialogue, including Dejah’s opening narration. We get the blind white apes that smell the fear of the prey, the radium-propelled flying vehicles, and the set piece in the gladiatorial arena that had to be included despite it feeling way too familiar. Fortunately, the film does not take itself too seriously and allows some nice humorous touches, including Carter’s repeated attempts at escape from the US Army and various exchanges between characters. It’s a good popcorn adventure and well worth your attention had you missed it in the theaters.
The cast does a fine job with the weaker-than-hoped-for script and while it won’t make a leading man out of Kitsch, I hope it affords Collins some future strong roles.
Extras begin with Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins providing a worth-hearing commentary, noting many of the behind-the-camera challenges. For those with the appropriate device, the film comes with Disney Second Screen Interactive Experience that has an introduction and additional content.
The bonus features come with Deleted Scenes (19 minutes) totaling ten scenes it is an interesting assortment as Stanton explains many never got beyond their early stages so we see green screens everywhere, ATVs standing in for Tharks and Thoats. None are particularly missed but it’s a good assortment. I wish the 100 Years in the Making was longer since ten minutes is nowhere near long enough to properly explore the origins of the prose and its aborted adaptations. It should also have touched on all the films, books, and comics that have drawn inspiration from Burroughs’ imagination.
You can enjoy, though, the 35-minute 360 Degrees of John Carter which is a video production diary detailing the complex production. Rounding out the collection is the original trailer and two minutes of Barsoom Bloopers.
I had high hopes when this was first announced and cringed when the bad word spread across the internet. It was gratifying to see that the film was nowhere near as bad as described but it was also not as transcending an experience as I had wanted.