In 1912, a struggling businessman named Edgar Rice Burroughs—who, at age 35, had already worked as a rancher, soldier, and pencil-sharpener wholesaler—published his first story. Titled “Under The Moons Of Mars” and credited to “Norman Bean,” it introduced the character of John Carter, an ex-Confederate soldier transported from the American Southwest to Mars, where red-skinned humans; 15-foot-high, six-legged, green-skinned warriors; and other races vie to control the remains of a once-vibrant planet. That same year, Burroughs published Tarzan Of The Apes, the story of an Englishman raised in the jungle. Both characters have had long lives and developed considerable followings, though one’s fame has outstripped the other.
A hero reinvented anew for each generation—with varying degrees of success—Tarzan has starred in films, comic strips, radio series, parodies, and a feature-length animated Disney movie. Though less of a pop-culture touchstone, John Carter and the 11 Burroughs novels set on Mars—or, to use the preferred Martian term, Barsoom—exerted even more influence than Burroughs’ Tarzan books by combining swashbuckling, Old West heroics, and a wildly imaginative take on alien life into a series of irresistible adventures. Anyone who’s enjoyed a science-fiction tale that relied more on daring action and conflicts between good and evil than on calculating the amount of fuel needed to escape the gravitational pull of a planet’s atmosphere has, in no small part, Burroughs’ Barsoom stories to thank. Yet in spite of its influence on everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar, Barsoom has remained largely confined to the pages of Burroughs’ books.
That’s partly because technological limitations have made it difficult to realize Burroughs’ vision of Mars. Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett gave it a shot in the 1930s, but the project never got off the ground. Neither did John Carter films from Ray Harryhausen, Robert Rodriguez, and others, who all possibly lucked out by not getting the job. A hundred years of anticipation builds up a lot of pressure. Not that it’s the only element contributing pressure. Given that bringing Carter to the big screen involves convincingly creating a whole planet with deep roots in early-20th-century pulp fiction, it’s a difficult project under any circumstances. (It’s also worth noting that a truly faithful adaptation would be directed by Paul Verhoeven, rated NC-17, and filled with the copious nudity and generous bloodletting of Burroughs’ original stories.)
Andrew Stanton—the Pixar vet behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E—remains relatively true to Burroughs’ vision with John Carter, which is occasionally to the film’s detriment, especially in the early going. The opening scene, however spectacular-looking, plays like a non-fan’s nightmare of what science fiction is like. Airships confront each other against the Martian frontier. Armor-clad men spout dialogue referring to civilizations and technologies that people who’ve never read Burroughs won’t understand, and those who haven’t read him recently might not recall. Eerie-looking bald men appear out of thin air. It’s almost as if someone dropped the wrong reel into the projector first.
What follows doesn’t improve matters much. Viewers meet John Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch) as he evades a shady character in 19th-century New York, then learn of his death as his nephew, Edgar Burroughs (Spy Kids veteran Daryl Sabara) assumes control of his sizable estate and begins reading the journal his uncle left behind. (The film keeps the conceit of Burroughs’ books that the author is sharing a true story recounted by Carter himself.) From there, the film flashes back to Carter’s experiences as a Southwestern prospector and his subsequent, reluctant enlistment into a confrontation between the local cavalry (led by Bryan Cranston) and a tribe of Apaches. He accidentally gets a chance to sidestep the fighting, however, after stumbling into a cave and ending up on Mars. He initially thinks himself still in the American desert, in one of the film’s cleverest touches, but the mistaken impression doesn’t last much longer than it takes to stumble on an incubator filled with just-hatched, six-legged green babies and encounter a towering green Martian warrior named Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).
From there, Stanton starts to explore, carefully, the world we encountered so breathlessly in the opening scene. Carter is imprisoned by the Tharks—those green Martians—then becomes a member of their uncompromising nomadic society. Eventually, he learns of the human red Martians and meets their beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris (played by Lynn Collins with all the stately assurance her navel-baring costumes will allow). It’s a world Burroughs would have recognized. Though created by state-of-the-art CGI effects, all the dog-like frog-monsters and old-fashioned swordplay of Burroughs’ Barsoom makes it to the screen.
His breathless momentum, on the other hand, doesn’t, at least not immediately. Stanton’s film, in the opening half, lacks the efficient storytelling of his animated features. We learn about Tharks, but not nearly enough to make a late-film revelation of one character’s parentage as meaningful as the dramatic gravity around the moment suggests it ought to be. Other Burroughs-isms, like the advanced particle beam that could save Martian civilization (or… destroy it!) just become sillier as more time is dedicated to explaining them. John Carter takes a while to find its emotional center, too, in spite of a screenplay credited in part to novelist and vocal pulp fan Michael Chabon. Though at times taciturn to a fault, Kitsch is soulful and charismatic as Carter, and he looks the part of a ridiculously handsome pulp hero. But the film, apart from a bit of additional backstory gracefully integrated in a series of flashbacks, struggles to make him a character of any depth beyond his description of himself early in the first Barsoom novel, A Princess Of Mars: “I have ever been prone to seek adventure and to investigate and experiment where wiser men would have left well enough alone.”
Yet about halfway through, John Carter follows the example of its hero, who initially struggles just to move across the surface of his new home, then discovers he can soar. With the exposition out of the way, Stanton turns the film into a ripping adventure with gladiatorial combat against towering, many-armed albino apes and first-rate effects. And the action comes in the service of a determinedly old-fashioned story that finds Carter rushing to defeat the bad guys in time to keep Martian princess Lynn Collins from falling into the hands of a ruthless villain played by Dominic West, who’s clearly enjoying the chance to play a simple bad guy. At its best, it recalls Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the way it joins of-the-moment technology with the sturdy rhythms and easy thrills of an old B-movie.
That’s no small accomplishment. Where many effects-driven films have used CGI carelessly and ceaselessly to diminishing returns, Stanton’s team has a real interest in building a world, from the distinctive Thark characters played by Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church to the towering red Martian cities. A lot of the press leading up to John Carter’s release has focused on how much it cost, but the old saw about the money being up there on the screen certainly applies, and for once, the money is truly in service of wonder. Rather than trying to overwhelm viewers by overloading the senses, John Carter’s effects strive to create something new using as their foundation a book that’s fired imaginations for the past century. Though it sometimes struggles to reach them, John Carter’s high points could leave viewers dreaming of Mars for another hundred years.