John Carter (2012)
In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs began publishing the serialisation of what would become the Princess of Mars. In 1912, the individual episodes were collected together and published as the first of the Barsoom novels. As they say, it was the beginning of the history of science fantasy in which escapist recreations of Wild West novels were relocated to planets like Mars. So white heroes would battle Red Indian surrogates and local cattle barons while fending off monsters of different varieties. Not forgetting the need to rescue damsels in distress and have sex with them. In the traditional values novels, it would be necessary for the hero to marry the Princess to facilitate the sex thing. Life could be tough for men one-hundred years ago. ERB, as he’s affectionately known, is acknowledged as the father of this subgenre, it being customary to blame him for setting the bar so low in the creation of this subgenre’s clichés. So this is both the strength and weakness of ERB as source material. He was the “first”, but he’s been endlessly copied. This pushes his ideas so far past their sell-by dates, it’s dangerous to bring them to the screen without giving them a major overhaul to make them more acceptable to the modern audience. The more reverential the film adaptation, the worse it’s likely to be.
I had vague hopes John Carter (2012) would be bearable given the choice of scriptwriter and director. Andrew Stanton has been responsible for some of the best animated films of all time. There was a chance some of the inventiveness and wit of Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and the Toy Stories would find their way into his first live-action work. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed. At 132 minutes in length, this is a leviathan becalmed in turgid waters. However you want to view the original novel, it’s a slight story. Spinning it out beyond the two hour mark is a serious misjudgment. Although no-one actually left the cinema during the showing, there was increasing shuffling and the pale lights of phones and handheld devices indicated people were catching up on the latest emails and chatting with friends. As we emerged blearily into the light, there was a general sense of relief. We looked around for a celebratory T-shirt to confirm we had been there and endured.
So Taylor Kitch won the competition to be the eponymous John Carter and, truth be told, he does his best. The problem lies in the script. He starts off in the period immediately after the Civil War. The US Cavalry want to recruit him into their ranks to help fight the Red Indians, but he’s been numbed by the death of his wife and is only interested in the pursuit of gold. This gives him the chance to demonstrate his mindless fighting skills. He could just respectfully decline the Yankees’ invitation and then passively resist. Instead, he takes every chance to lash out and is beaten insensible for his troubles. When finally able to break out of the stockade, he gets trapped in a cave and then discovers the First Born Martian technologist who materialises behind him is not bulletproof. Seconds later, he’s holding the transportation key in his hand and finds himself on Barsoom.
An uncountable number of minutes later, he’s captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his four-armed buddies. The motion capture/CGI of these creatures is quite good. There’s some plausibility to the way they move without the extra pair of arms getting in the way. To pursue the Wild West analogy, these are the plains Red Indians of Mars. Ignore the twelve feet of height and their green colour. Think Geronimo and his tribes and you’re in the groove. Fortunately Sola (Samantha Morton) gives John Carter a slug of the instant language drink and he’s pitched into the local political scene. Too many minutes later, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris arrives on the scene in full battle mode. She’s being chased by Sab Than (Dominic West) who’s egged on by the First Born’s leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong). To cut the ponderous story down to its essentials, Ciaran Hinds (Tardos Mors — all-round nice guy and Lynn Collins’ Dad) offers appeasement to the evil hordes but, as we might predict, Taylor Kitch and Lynn Collins hit it off and, despite the best efforts of Mark Strong, they defeat these incompetent horde people. To celebrate victory, Earth and Barsoom get married and are poised to claim the secrets of the ninth element. This will enable them to use the Temple of the Sun to rescue Barsoom from imminent destruction through the accelerating water loss. Except, John Carter ends up back on Earth so he can tell ERB his story — a deeply frustrating thing to happen when you’ve just enjoyed your first night of connubial bliss with Lynn Collins.
The real problem with this film is that it takes itself way too seriously. If there was even a flicker of humour, it would make it bearable — like the absurd distances Carter can jump are treated as normal. But everyone is so worthy on the side of good and the bad guys are really bad, albeit stupid, so it just turns into a parade of the usual suspects. There are a couple of battles in the air as stately galleons pummel each other with different levels of weaponry, there are sword fights, one remarkably ferocious as Carter sees off an entire warrior clan “single-handed” — those four-armed green meanies on horseback don’t stand a chance against our Mexican jumping bean — and an arena in which giant white apes wait to tear off four or six limbs depending on your species. Worse, there’s even a Martian dog that’s imprinted on John Carter at birth and relentlessly pursues him across the face of Mars with a level of loyalty Lassie would have admired. There’s not even any gratuitous nudity or sex. This is a Disney film and nothing family unfriendly can appear on the screen (except a lot of people of different species get hacked to pieces — without too much blood of any colour being seen to be spilled).
So if you’re an unreconstructed fan of ERB, you will probably enjoy John Carter. Everyone else should save their money and hope for something better later on in the year.
This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award.