Superficially, John Carter—or John Carter of Mars, as the end credits still give the title—plays like a derivative patchwork of sci-fi fantasy landmarks from Avatar to Star Wars and Star Trek. Fans of Smallville or Superman Returns will be reminded of young Clark Kent’s fantastic leaps before he learned to fly. Viewers with longer memories may think back to Dune or Planet of the Apes, while those with shorter ones may be reminded of Cowboys and Aliens or Prince of Persia.
The irony, of course, is that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, the first of which was published 100 years ago this year, are the predecessors, not the successors, of all those tales. Burroughs is better known as the creator of Tarzan, who has enjoyed more success in his own right—but John Carter is the more influential of the two.
Burroughs didn’t invent science fiction, but he perhaps created a genre of serial sci-fi fantasy adventure, with an idealized action hero going from one extraterrestrial adventure to another. Carter’s closest literary ancestor may be Sinbad from One Thousand and One Nights, which is saying something. Buck Rogers, James Kirk and Luke Skywalker are all his descendants, and Jake Sully—the hero of Avatar, which really is a patchwork borrowing from everything Burroughs inspired—is perhaps more indebted to John Carter than any other character in history.
Isn’t all this a technicality, though? Hasn’t Burroughs become so successful and imitated that he’s essentially redundant? Earlier efforts to bring Carter to the screen have failed, but storytellers have gone back again and again to the well of the Barsoom novels (so called for the name the inhabitants of Mars—where Carter’s adventures take place—give their own planet).
Haven’t we seen it all before, from the bestiary amphitheater bloodsport of Attack of the Clones to Princess Leia’s metal bikini? As for Avatar, the long list of parallels would arguably run into spoilers. Isn’t the well dry by now?
Well, yes and no. It’s true that Wall-E director Andrew Stanton’s $250-million extravaganza—based mostly on A Princess of Mars, the first of the Barsoom novels—doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. What’s more, the dense political back story, with Zodangans, Heliumites, Tharks and Therns all hugger-mugger, is pretty impenetrable to the newcomer.
Yet somehow it feels credibly ripped from a larger mythology rather than being cobbled together from spare parts, like Star Wars or Avatar. When a Thark gets in another Thark’s face and they lock tusks, or when a massive, stumpy Woola takes off like the Road Runner, one has the sense of Barsoom as a place unto itself, alien and incalculable, unencumbered by self-consciousness of other worlds and franchises. There’s a primitive ur-text quality to John Carter, as if it really is happening here for the first time.
Some of the Christological resonances in subsequent mythologies (notably Superman and Star Wars) crop up here as well, as Jeffrey Overstreet pithily notes by invoking “another J.C. who is either a madman, a liar or just who he says he is” (and the parallels don’t end there).
Yet John Carter is more intriguing than interesting, more respectable than exhilarating. The title hero (played by the whimsically named Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War veteran who walks into a mysterious cave in 19th-century Arizona and finds himself on an alien world, makes a boring hero here—though this requires some perspective. Fantastic fiction has traditionally featured resolutely uninteresting heroes, as C.S. Lewis explains in On Stories:
Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. … To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much: He who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange. He ought to be as nearly as possible Everyman or Anyman.
But in the first place, the movie’s sights are no longer strange to us. Airships, ray guns, multi-limbed beasties—this isn’t terra incognita anymore. With its dusty, rocky, desert terrain, Barsoom isn’t even all that different from the Southwestern landscape Carter leaves behind when he’s mysteriously transported to the red planet.
More crucially, Carter in the movie is not Everyman. When we meet him, he’s a bitter, disillusioned, eccentric coot roaming the Arizona wilderness searching for mysterious, ancient lithographs marking the location of a cave he believes is full of gold. Not only is he not interesting, he isn’t particularly appealing or sympathetic.
What’s especially frustrating is how utterly different this is from the more engaging hero Burroughs sketched on the very first page of A Princess of Mars:
He seemed always to be laughing; and he entered into the sports of the children with the same hearty good fellowship he displayed toward those pastimes in which the men and women of his own age indulged; or he would sit for an hour at a time entertaining my old grandmother with stories of his strange, wild life in all parts of the world. We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod. … [His] eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical Southern gentleman of the highest type.
I’d never read Burroughs until recently, but my heart sank at those lines as I realized how much I would have rather spent two hours with that guy than the film’s grumpy antihero—all the more given how rare heroes with perfect manners and courtliness have become nowadays. What a missed opportunity.
All this is particularly disappointing from Stanton, also director of Finding Nemo and a writer on the Toy Story trilogy and Monsters, Inc. How could a filmmaker with that experience turn around and make a film with such an uninvolving protagonist? Fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird made the leap to live action much more gracefully with Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, though, to be fair, he set himself a much easier task.
What almost makes up for Carter, unmemorably played by Kitsch, is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, who is not only princess of the city state of Helium, but an eminent scientist—regent of the Royal Academy of Science, in fact—and a rough-and-tumble action heroine who swings a mean sword and doesn’t need rescuing, for the most part.
There are a few references to the Barsoomian religion, which appears to be similar to Hinduism, though the Kali-like goddess is named Issus, which so obviously echoes Jesus that one wonders what Burroughs was thinking. The religion is perpetuated by beings that appear as the equivalent of angels of light, though they may be much the opposite. (For what it’s worth, A) Burroughs was an agnostic and a critic of organized religion, B) Stanton is a professing Christian, and C) the film as it stands has no brief for or against religion as such.)
Stickier is a theme shared with Avatar involving (spoiler warning) a sort of projection or transmigration of souls from one body to another. Like Jake Sully, Carter is willing to leave his body behind to enjoy a more appealing reality in a corporal form. Such indifference to one’s true body is problematic from the perspective of Christian belief that the body is more than a disposable shell—that body and soul form a unity, severed in death but restored in the resurrection.
Following the book, the film has a terrestrial framing story presenting a record of Carter’s exploits to a young relative identified as Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara from Spy Kids). The earthbound bookends lead to some nice twists in the last act, ending the film on a high note. Not high enough, perhaps, to warrant the 100-year wait—or the bloated budget—but high enough that if there were a prospect of returning to Barsoom in a few years, I’d be up for it.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Intense stylized action and sci-fi violence and menace, including non-realistic alien gore; limited profanity and bad language; female characters in scanty attire; a depiction of urination. Teens and up.