"I can remember as a child reading with breathless fascination the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I journeyed with John Carter, gentleman adventurer from Virginia, to "Barsoom," as Mars was known to its inhabitants. I followed herds of eight legged beasts of burden, the thoats. I won the hand of the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. I befriended a four-metre-high green fighting man named Tars Tarkas. I wandered within the spired cities and domed pumping stations of Barsoom, and along the verdant banks of the Nilosyrtis and Nepenthes canals. Might it really be possible - in fact and not in fancy - to venture with John Carter to the Kingdom of Helium on the planet Mars? Could we venture out on a summer evening, our way illuminated by the two hurtling moons of Barsoom, for a journey of high scientific adventure? ... I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood, arms resolutely outstretched in an empty field, imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there."
--Carl Sagan, Cosmos
I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. I preferred the John Carter books to the Tarzan books, mainly because of the fantasy elements (though Tarzan was certainly no stranger to fantasy). It always irked me that there were Tarzan films without number, but no movies set on Barsoom. If I squint, I can see Barsoom in Star Wars, thinly disguised as Tatooine. It's got some of the fauna and it has the two great lights in its sky, though Tatooine's lights are suns rather than moons. But Princess Leia was not Dejah Thoris. Not even once they put her in the slave girl get-up in Return of the Jedi. The first Barsoom book, A Princess of Mars, was published in 1912. The first movie set on Barsoom arrives a hundred years later. This must surely be the longest case of development hell ever. I wish the resulting film, John Carter (2012, directed by Andrew Stanton) was worth that wait, but it's not. Not really. Though parts of it are magnificent.
The story follows ex-Confederate soldier John Carter to Arizona, where he finds a cave full of gold and a war brewing between the Seventh Cavalry and the Apaches. Caught in the middle, he hides in his cave, only find himself transported to the middle of some unknown desert. In his new surroundings, he finds that he can jump great distances and is otherwise stronger than he was before. This doesn't stop him from being captured by the Tharks, a race of ten-foot warriors with green skin, tusks, and four arms. Meanwhile, there's a war going on between the members of another race of Martians. The city states of Helium and Zodanga are struggling for supremacy. Zodanga is the agressor. It's a parasite city that is destroying the planet. It's commander, Sab Than, has gained the upper hand in the war thanks to the interference of the Therns, who are supplying him with weapons powered by the mysterious ninth ray. Dejah Thoris, the scholar princess of Helium has independently discovered this ray, but the Therns sabotage her work. Sab Than demands Dejah Thoris's hand in marriage as the price of peace. She rebels and flees. Her transport is caught by the Zodangans in the sky above the Tharks, where Carter sees her distress and, in spectacular fashion, rescues her. The rest of the movie is a quest to unmask the Therns, save Helium, and explore the technology of the ninth ray. It culminates at the wedding of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than, which Carter crashes with an army of Tharks at his back...
This is a film that falls prey to the fact that the golden age of science fiction, as the saying goes, is twelve. This is not a movie that is going to challenge an adult viewer. It's all whiz-bang action and special effects, with hardly a moment to catch one's breath or develop characters. It also suffers because the world has caught up to Burroughs and put his influence on screen so many times that even though A Princess of Mars is the primary source of Flash Gordon and Star Wars and hundreds of other cinematic science fiction adventures, it now seems dated. It's not new anymore. It's just another big-budget dance of computer-generated shadows. As a story, it's a mess. While the shambolic, one damned thing after another way that Burroughs constructed the story may have worked in 1912, publishing in installments, it doesn't necessarily translate to a two hour movie. Scenes in this movie seem to appear at random, complicating things for the sake of complicating them. Take, for instance, the opening, set in Arizona shortly after the Civil War. There's a great deal of importance placed on Carter by the Seventh Cavalry's Colonel Powell, but that need seems more a driver of plot than an organic event. Ditto the arena scene when the evil Thark, Tal Hajus, throws Carter and his friends to the great white apes of Barsoom. This is a speedbump. A useless impediment. It's placing of Carter at the head of an army of Tharks seems out of left-field, too. It doesn't matter how cool any of this looks--and believe me, if I were twelve, I'd dig this scene--it doesn't really serve the movie. The whole thing is disjointed.
And yet...Here's why I kind of dig John Carter: it's female lead completely steals the movie. Lynn Collins plays Dejah Thoris, and she shines in the part. In the books, rescuing Dejah Thoris is the all of John Carter's motivation and the sum of her depth as a character. She's an object to be gained. In this movie, however, she has agency of her own, kicks unholy ass, and shines with the same star quality Collins brought to playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She upstaged Al Pacino in that one. In a just world, this performance would form the spine of a better movie and Collins would ride it to a justly deserved stardom. But, alas...
Not that the rest of the cast is bad. Far from it. Someone in the casting department is a fan of HBO's Rome, because you have three of the principals from that series in prominent roles here: Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, and Polly Walker. Mark Strong seems to be the go-to choice for bad guys these days, while Dominic West sneers through his part with the best of them. Hell, Taylor Kitsch isn't bad as Carter, but he's out of his depth if you start comparing him to his co-stars.
The movie looks good, too, though that's faint praise anymore given the current state of the art in production design and special effects. The costumes are kind of kitschy, but you should probably expect that. For that matter, if you've read the book, you would expect a lot less costume on certain characters to start with, but this is a Disney release, so so much for that. No naked Dejah Thoris for you, my friends, and we're all probably poorer for it.