The first of the John Carter pulp stories, originally issued as UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS and later re-titled A PRINCESS OF MARS when published in book form, appeared in the February 1912 issue of THE ALL-STORY pulp magazine and was the inaugural work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who less than a year later would earn great wealth, fame and literary/pop culture immortality as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes. Over the course of eleven pulp novels, Burroughs spun fanciful tales of John Carter, a former Confederate officer and master swordsman who through rather weird means finds himself terrestrially displaced to the planet Mars — known to its native inhabitants as Barsoom — where he encounters a number of warlike races, all manner of strange creatures and a cornucopia of advanced-yet-quaint ordnance and sci-fi vehicles. He also wins the hand of a local princess whose beauty is described as “unequaled,” and from there the adventures cover a hell of a lot of old school ground, pretty much inventing many of the tropes that are now part of the DNA of science-fiction/fantasy adventures. If one does even a cursory overview of such stories over the past century, many of the common elements of the genre that we now take for granted or find rote can be traced directly back to the Rosetta Stone of Burroughs imagination. For the most recent example of what I’m talking about, look no further than James Cameron’s “revolutionary” AVATAR (2009), the monster box office hit that I was not alone in considering it to owe a sizable debt to much of what Burroughs came up with in the John Carter tales. The exotic alien world and culture, multi-legged beasties, an Earthman hero who goes native in a big way and marries the locals’ princess… All found in AVATAR and all cribbed from the first John Carter story written a hundred years ago, so don’t come crying to me about JOHN CARTER the movie being “derivative.”
My boyhood wish finally comes true, some thirty-six years after I first encountered the John Carter books.
Disney’s JOHN CARTER is a film I’ve waited for since I first read the initial novel thirty-seven years ago, and though not without some flaws here and there, I enjoyed it very, very much. It’s got all the action, romance, intrigue, cool extra-terrestrials — the awesome Tharks are among my all-time favorite alien characters — and the far-flung exotic planetscape that made Burroughs’ stories irresistible to me when I was between the ages of ten and fourteen (though it was unfortunately inevitable that the novels’ depiction of Barsoom’s culture as that of a planetwide nudist colony would be sanitized for the screen, especially since it’s a Disney film) and it made me feel like I was a kid again, even for the briefest of periods. Simply put, it was exactly what I needed to take me out of my currently miserable and frustrating existence for just over two hours, and I enjoyed it enough to happily pay NYC 3-D movie price to see it twice within twenty-four hours. (NOTE: I admit that I likely enjoyed it as much as I did thanks to having been a lifelong John Carter fan, so your individual mileage may vary.)
The film chronicles John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, who’s not bad in the part but exudes nothing of the Southern gentleman quality found in the novels) having adventures on Mars/Barsoom that drop him into the middle of a conflict between the warring city states of Helium and Zodanga, while he must also navigate surviving among the equally warlike Tharks, towering green warrior tribesmen with four arms. During all of this mayhem, Carter befriends the Thark chief, Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), and much-abused female slave Sola (Samantha Morton), as well as meeting the spirited and smokin’ hot Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), while political machinations from a number of different parties spur the narrative’s finer points.
If all of that sounds complicated or convoluted, it isn’t, and it all moves quite briskly while doling out heaping helpings of old-fashioned fun that evokes the sci-fi/fantasy/space opera thrills of yore, which is only appropriate when one recalls that this the seed from which an entire genre germinated. What we have here is, when boiled down to its simplest descriptor, an old-fashioned pulp adventure yarn brought to vivid, fun life, and that’s really all there is to it. If you’re looking for Dostoyevsky, I politely suggest you look elsewhere.
Among the film’s many fun points, the following elements are the standouts:
- The Tharks are everything I’d hoped they’d be (if depicted a good deal shorter than the average fifteen feet described in the books), especially Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe, giving voice to an excellent CGI creation) and Sola (Samantha Morton, also voicing a CGI character).
Tarkas was the main reason I continued reading the books and when I was kid who devoured those works, I often imagined myself in his place in the adventures. He was just that cool. The one problem with Tars Tarkas and Sola in this film — which, let’s face it, is yet another origin story — is that they are not the focus of the narrative. Whenever they’re onscreen, they steal the movie, but John Carter himself is the true and obvious thrust of the tale, so Tars and Sola are understandably given less screen time. More’s the pity…
- Woola, Carter’s assigned guardian animal — a “calot” in the books, but never identified as such in the film — also steals the movie.
- Lynn Collins rocks as Princess Dejah Thoris, the film's best non-CGI character.
- The all-too-brief appearances by James Purefoy as Heliumite royal soldier Kantos Kan are terrific and genuinely funny, and I wish we’d had the opportunity to see more of him.
So, there’s a lot to enjoy in JOHN CARTER but Disney did a spectacularly poor job of marketing the film, which I believe is the key element in the film doing shithouse box office domestically. The trailers bit the big one, the posters and logo were the polar opposite of interesting or attention-getting, the words “of mars” were removed from the title shortly before the film’s release (reportedly due to Disney now-fired marketing head determining that the earlier MARS NEEDS MOMS tanked and therefore the word “Mars” was automatic box office poison), thus granting the film the utterly generic title of JOHN CARTER (they may as well have called it JOE BUDIDOWITZ: THE MOVIE, for all that the title imparted about other-worldly adventure, aliens and a hot space-babe) and there was no mention whatsoever of the character being from the same guy who created Tarzan.
In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would swear that the studio was making a concerted effort to sabotage its own release. Most of the critics have also been merciless and I wonder if that’s because they just don’t like this kind of material or they’ve just joined the overwhelming culture of Internet hating on something for months before it even comes out, thus already bearing a head and heart full of vitriol as they enter the screening room.
Whatever the case, the damage has been done and theater attendance on opening weekend was dismal. I saw the film twice, first at a decent multiplex not far from where I live in Brooklyn, and again the following night at Manhattan’s legendary Ziegfeld theater, and I can scarce recall seeing a big-budget sci-fi/action/adventure movie in its first few days where the theaters were so barren that their aisles should have been littered with bison skulls and tumbleweeds. The 4pm show on Friday yielded a turnout of just over twenty people (including me), many of whom were fans of the John Carter novels (a fact gleaned from overhearing their conversations on the way out), and the 7pm show on Saturday night at the Ziegfeld — a showtime that’s virtually always guaranteed to be sold out, almost no matter what movie may be playing there — saw an audience of maybe sixty-five or seventy people, including myself and the four friends who joined me.Actual shot of the Ziegfeld's auditorium, ten minutes before the lights went down on Saturday night. The crowd did not come anywhere near to filling the theater's capacity of just over 1500.
We all enjoyed it and the majority of folks who’ve written in to comment about it on my Facebook wall shared in the fun, so hopefully positive word of mouth will help turn JOHN CARTER into a “sleeper” hit. Anything can happen and I hope it does well enough to generate a sequel, and I hope the studio stands behind it if it comes to pass.