Mar­tian mis­ad­ven­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

EDGAR Rice Bur­roughs is best known as the cre­ator of Tarzan, the ape-man star of many a B-grade jun­gle ad­ven­ture in the 1940s and one of the great screen he­roes of my child­hood. In those days I was largely in­sen­si­tive to the sto­ries’ racist over­tones and saw noth­ing of­fen­sive in Tarzan’s con­tempt for the lesser breeds of hu­man­ity. It is not so well known that Bur­roughs was also the au­thor of an 11-vol­ume se­ries known as the Bar­soom nov­els, fea­tur­ing John Carter, a cap­tain in the Con­fed­er­ate army dur­ing the Amer­i­can Civil War who is mirac­u­lously trans­ported to Mars. To mark the centenary of Carter’s first ap­pear­ance in print in 1912, the Dis­ney stu­dios have laboured might­ily to bring forth John Carter, a pon­der­ous ac­tion block­buster based on Carter’s Mar­tian ad­ven­tures, di­rected by An­drew Stan­ton.

Bur­roughs was a lit­er­ary and show­biz en­tre­pre­neur ahead of his time. The Bar­soom nov­els — Bar­soom be­ing the Mar­tian name for Mars — were pub­lished in in­stal­ments in a pulp sci­ence fic­tion mag be­fore ap­pear­ing in book form. As Charles Dick­ens well knew, se­rial pub­li­ca­tion was the way to make money. Bur­roughs is said to have earned about $US20 mil­lion from the rights to his Tarzan sto­ries, a huge sum that prob­a­bly would have cov­ered most of the cost of Dis­ney’s lat­est gar­gan­tuan folly if con­verted into to­day’s dol­lars. Bur­roughs also had the fore­sight to know that suc­cess­ful Hol­ly­wood block­busters in the 21st cen­tury would be based, for pref­er­ence, on comic strips rather than books. Var­i­ous edi­tions of the Bar­soom nov­els ap­peared in comic-book form with Bur­roughs’s ap­proval, and Mar­vel is said to be launch­ing a new John Carter comic to co­in­cide with the re­lease of the movie.

It’s a huge film and a hugely dis­ap­point­ing one — though I con­fess I had no idea what to ex­pect, hav­ing never heard of John Carter un­til I read about the movie. It’s an­other 3-D spe­cial ef­fects ex­trav­a­ganza crammed with end­less bat­tle scenes that all look the same, with an un­cer­tain script, shal­low char­ac­ters and an un­usu­ally dun­coloured vis­ual style as if ev­ery­thing had been filmed through brown and orange fil­ters. And in many ways the project was doomed from the be­gin­ning. At one stage Jon Favreau was asked to di­rect the first Carter story for Para­mount, but the plan fell through. As far back as 1931 (so Wikipedia tells me), Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes di­rec­tor Bob Clam­pett worked with Bur­roughs on an an­i­mated John Carter film, be­liev­ing the tech­nol­ogy did not then ex­ist to cap­ture the nec­es­sary spe­cial ef­fects in live ac­tion. But ini­tial re­ac­tion from US ex­hibitors proved neg­a­tive and again the project was aban­doned. A Princess of Mars (as the an­i­mated film was to be called) would have been Hol­ly­wood’s first full-length an­i­mated fea­ture, pre-dat­ing Dis­ney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (An in­de­pen­dent live­ac­tion film, A Princess of Mars, went straight to DVD in 2009.)

In Stan­ton’s film, Carter is played by Tay­lor Kitsch, who looks rather too pal­lid and diminu­tive to be an ac­tion hero. I won­der if Bur­roughs saw him as a more civilised ver­sion of Tarzan. He cer­tainly has a big­ger vo­cab­u­lary and for most of the film he’s re­spectably dressed (though the lit­tle we see of Kitsch’s torso scarcely bears com­par­i­son with Johnny Weiss­muller’s). But the two have much in com­mon, in­clud­ing their own re­mark­able forms of lo­co­mo­tion. Tarzan got around by swing­ing on jun­gle vines and Carter takes ad­van­tage of Bar­soom’s lower grav­ity to soar into the sky at will, leap­ing tall boul­ders in a sin­gle bound. This gives him a god-like rep­u­ta­tion among the Bar­soo­mian pop­u­la­tion. It is dur­ing one of these grav­ity de­fy­ing leaps that he first en­coun­ters a beau­ti­ful princess (Lynn Collins). I half­ex­pected him to greet her with the words ‘‘ Me Carter, you Princess’’ be­fore leap­ing into a river to do bat­tle with a crocodile.

But if much of John Carter seems fa­mil­iar, it’s not be­cause it feels like a se­quel to the Tarzan movies but be­cause it feels like a se­quel to Star Wars. There’s an on-screen ded­i­ca­tion to Steve Jobs, for some rea­son, but some ac­knowl­edg­ment of Ge­orge Lu­cas might have been more to the point. The dusty ex­te­rior land­scapes were shot in Utah (lo­ca­tions in cen­tral Australia hav­ing been con­sid­ered), and parts of the film could be of­f­cuts from The Em­pire Strikes Back, with Bar­soom stand­ing in for the re­mote, dry planet Ta­tooine. In his best mo­ments, Kitsch com­bines some­thing of the cal­low charm of Mark Hamill’s Luke Sky­walker with the more rugged ap­peal of Har­ri­son Ford. And the beau­ti­ful Princess De­jah Tho­ris (Collins’s char­ac­ter) car­ries strong re­minders of Car­rie Fisher’s spunky Princess Leia. There’s even a cute lit­tle pug-like mas­cot that might have been in­spired by R2-D2.

We be­gin with a brief pro­logue in New York in the 1880s, when we get to meet the young Bur­roughs. Af­ter a skir­mish or two with his reg­i­ment in Ari­zona, Carter is trans­ported to Mars through some form of as­tral pro­jec­tion. The im­pli­ca­tion is that he has been dis­patched at the mo­ment of his earthly death.

In Bar­soom he awak­ens to en­counter the Tharks, crea­tures with two legs, four arms and great horned skulls who could be of­f­cuts from The Re­turn of the Jedi. A cou­ple of mighty bat­tle scenes quickly es­tab­lish that Bar­soom is be­ing torn apart by tribal con­flict. While the planet has its share of mon­sters and grotesques, much of the pop­u­la­tion re­sem­bles or­di­nary hu­man be­ings, and it’s a re­lief to dis­cover that ev­ery­one (even the Tharks) speaks English, though the di­a­logue rarely rises above trite for­mu­la­tions such as: ‘‘ Let’s sort this out right away.’’

One prob­lem to be sorted out right away is how Princess De­jah can be saved from a fate worse than death — mar­riage to an ar­ro­gant Mar­tian war­lord, the price to be paid if her beloved city of He­lium is to be spared from destruc­tion.

As usual with comic-strip block­busters ev­ery­thing feels empty and pre­ten­tious. Of course there are some im­pres­sive spe­cial ef­fects, but Stan­ton never seems to get on top of his mud­dled ma­te­rial, though he’s well enough served by his cast: Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Sa­man­tha Mor­ton and Do­minic West, among oth­ers (some sup­ply­ing voices for the crea­ture ef­fects).

I re­mem­ber Stan­ton for his beau­ti­ful an­i­mated sci-fi fa­ble WALL-E, about a lonely garbage com­pactor aban­doned on Earth to clear up the mess left be­hind by a flee­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion. John Carter toys with an­other en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage: the idea that the planet is dy­ing from the loss of water and the slow pol­lu­tion of its at­mos­phere. Judg­ing from the many shots of a parched Bar­soom land­scape, there may be a mes­sage here about global warm­ing. If so, it’s soon lost amid all the bat­tles and fly­ing ma­chines and mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions.

I’d be sur­prised, in any case, if Bur­roughs in­tended John Carter to be an apos­tle of en­vi­ron­men­tal sal­va­tion. Per­haps I should read the books — or at least the comics — and find out.

Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and John Carter (Tay­lor Kitsch) in John Carter

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