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