Burroughs’ John Carter: Warlord of Mars novels were first published back in 1917 (before his first Tarzan novel, even). Though popular with fans of planetary romance for decades, the stories have had a difficult time making their way to movie screens. James Cameron tried for years before giving up. Robert Rodriguez wanted to do it. So did Jon Favreau. Obviously, they never got the chance. A rather ridiculous version of Princess of Mars was released direct-to-DVD in 2009. It stars Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords. Now Disney is giving it a shot, dumping $250 million into a blockbuster version directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E).
This is almost certainly a mistake. No matter how good the film is (and, as I said, it’s not good enough), Disney is never going to recover that kind of money on an obscure property in the pre-summer season. That said, Stanton’s version may be the best version fans could hope for. The budget’s all there on the screen. The wall-to-wall CGI is impressive. The 3D effects are occasionally exciting. The production design is imaginative. Bringing Burroughs’ old-fashioned, barbarians-and-laser-guns version of Mars to life requires a fantastic amount of special effects. It’s no surprise then to find Stanton’s first stab at live-action film littered with digital characters and settings.
John Carter follows the narrative of Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars rather closely. A little too closely, in fact. It was Burroughs' first attempt at writing, and it’s definitely got its flaws. On screen, the story takes way too long to get going. Wraparound sequences that drag Burroughs himself (Spy Kids’ Daryl Sabara) into the narrative seem pointless (even if they do jibe with Burroughs’ manuscript). A bizarre race of aliens (led by Mark Strong from Sherlock Holmes) slowly destroying planets by manipulating them into endless warfare (for no apparent reason) feels like one plot point too many. Flashbacks and standard, Hollywood-issue character development further bog down the fun.
There are moments when John Carter has a flashy, Saturday matinee feel. A violent showdown in a gladiatorial arena and the long-promised Epic Battle that follows are blood-pumpingly entertaining. The arena sequence in particular shows off the pulpy goodness of Burroughs’ story. It’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t nail that kind of manly, bare-chested, blood-soaked sci-fi/fantasy action more often.
What with its noble heroes, techno-mystical villains, high-flying sword fights and zooming spaceship chases, John Carter is obviously aiming for the mythic scope of the original Star Wars. (No A New Hope necessary.) Even today, that film remains a model of efficacy. Characters were summed up with a simple gesture or a line of dialogue. (Han Solo’s a rogueish badass because he shoots first. Princess Leia’s a tough bitch because she says stuff like, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”)
For its part, John Carter mucks around with explicatory flashbacks and lengthy speeches to provide nearly every character with a convenient character arc to navigate. ... C’mon, Hollywood. This is pure pulp material. You dream of manufacturing pure, unadulterated pulp fiction. Why do you continue to pretend you’re making something else? We don’t buy tickets to a Transformers movie to learn about the evolving relationship between Sam Witwicky and his dumb parents. We aren’t watching a movie based on John Carter: Warlord of Mars because we’re looking for some sort of connection to the inner emotional journey of this “John Carter” fellow. We pretty much came for the “Warlord of Mars” part. How hard is that to figure out?