With Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and Samantha Morton.
Director: Andrew Stanton. Producer: Jim Morris, Colin Wilson and
Lindsey Collins. Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and
Michael Chabon from the novel ‘A Princess Of Mars’ by Edgar Rice
Burroughs’. Original Release: Disney Pictures, March 2012.
DVD, Disney Studios Home Entertainment, July 2012
There’s an argument that – like Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’ movie-trilogy, it was not technically possible to do justice to the wide-screen vision of ‘A Princess Of Mars’ before the advent of computer-generated imagery. It could, and has been, portrayed in garish magazine-art, astounding comic-strips and comic-book editions where artists were limited only by the constraints of their imagination and skill. During the 1930’s Warner Brothers animator Bob Clampett drew test-footage, which still survives, but the project was dropped largely because ERB’s bestiary of extravagant Martian creatures seemed impossible to represent on screen. How to film six-armed Tharks or the giant Thoat mounts they ride, and give them any semblance of life? How to convincingly animate the ten-legged Banths, Apts and huge ferocious White Apes? TV Sci-Fi and Creature-Feature Drive-In Shockers have always used prosthetics and strings, miniaturisations and puppetry to achieve their shoddy ends. Film-makers such as Jon Favreau and Guillermo Del Toro toyed with the idea of using such techniques, while John ‘Jim’ Morris – working with director John McTiernan during the pre-digital late-eighties, got as far as casting Tom Cruise in the ‘John Carter’ role. But they always stopped short of visualising Barsoom. Until now. The Disney tagline promises ‘Movies, Magic and More’. Whether it delivers for John Carter is still very much open to debate.
Writing at a time when readerships were less familiar with exploits into the fantastic, Burroughs used framing-sequences as linking devices by which his characters were introduced to the bizarre. This film does the same thing. A stuttering awkwardly-uncertain Edgar Rice Burroughs himself is present, in the shape of actor Daryl Sabara. It’s he who investigates the ‘private journals’ of his late uncle, John Carter. Telling how in 1868, Carter is a Confederate misfit in post-Civil War Arizona, traumatised by loss and bereavement, attempting to make his way as a solitary gold prospector. Forcefully ‘invited’ to join the Seventh Cavalry in action against the Apache, he escapes and flees. Played on a short fuse by Taylor Kitsch this John Carter is a darkly truculent and largely inexpressive presence, although this is used to justify the tagline ‘Lost In Our World, Found In Another’. Seeking refuge in the inner recesses of a cave he stumbles upon a Thern medallion that instantaneously transports him into otherness. In the book his transition to Mars is achieved by a kind of astral projection, here ‘he’s telegraphed as a copy of himself’.
Carter falls into the barbaric green hands of savage Tharks, led by Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe), where his feats of superhuman agility and physical strength – enabled by the planet’s lesser gravity, earn him grudging respect. Due to an initial misunderstanding Tarkus calls him ‘Virginia’. The desolate desert Mars-scapes of ruined cities is an eye-ripping spectacle, impressively rendered as Carter rescues a fleeing Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) as her radium-powered ship comes under attack by a pursuing Zodangan warship under the control of her suitor Sab Than (Dominic West). She finds the lost Earthman’s tales of ocean-going ships as fantastic as he finds her ships that glide on light. Warily, Carter and Dejah Thoris, with Sola (Samantha Morton) and his faithful Woola – more of a cute slobbery reptilian-dog here than in the novels, quest along the sacred river Iss to locate a way back home. Then, taken to Helium itself he’s assisted by a personable Kantos Kan (James Purefoy). And through the ensuing knuckle-gobbling adventures the previously dour Carter not only finds love, but rediscovers the sense of purpose he’d lost on Earth. He ‘finds his true home.’ The climax scene in which he’s sentenced to battle two four-armed Great White Apes in the arena alongside a deposed Tars Tarkus, had unfortunately been trailored by a similar sequence in ‘Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones’ (2002), but is sufficiently generic to stand in its own right. Victorious, he erupts up through the monster corpse drenched in the White Ape’s blue blood. To lead the Thark horde in a spectacular battle against treacherous Zodanga even as the fatal marriage commences.
Carter then narrates how he becomes a kind of Indiana Jones scouring ancient sites of the world for evidence of all-powerful Thern intervention in terrestrial history. The framing-sequence resumes as ER ‘Ned’ Burroughs opens up his uncle’s Poe-like tomb, to find it empty, and his faked death a ruse intended to lure the shape-shifting Therns out of disguise, enabling him to return to Dejah Thoris and resume his role as Warlord of Helium. The inscription above his tomb – ‘Inter Mundos’, translates as ‘between worlds’. And before returning to Mars, John Carter instructs his nervous nephew to document the ‘most wondrous stories’ of his full transplanetary trip, bringing it all full-circle. The tale we are watching onscreen is taken from the text he subsequently wrote. One hundred years after he wrote it. So, this is a film one-hundred years in the making. And maybe that’s part of the problem…?
STAR WARS FOR
A NEW GENERATION’
‘JOHN CARTER’ Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Andrew Stanton. Producer: Jim Morris, Colin Wilson, Lindsey Collins. Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon from the novel ‘A Princess Of Mars’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs’. With Taylor Kitsch (as John Carter), Lynn Collins (as Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (as Sola), Willem Dafoe (as Tars Tarkas), Thomas Haden Church (as Tal Hajus), Mark Strong (as Matai Shang), Ciaran Hinds (as Tardos Mors), Dominic West (as Sab Than), James Purefoy (as Kantos Kan), Bryan Cranston (as Powell), Polly Walker (as Sarkoja), and Daryl Sabara (as Edgar Rice Burroughs). Music: Michael Giacchino. 127-minutes. ‘Dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs.’ Original Release: Disney Pictures, 9 March 2012 (USA). DVD, Disney Studios Home Entertainment, July 2012
‘THE SUPPLEMENT Issue 69’ (UK – April 2014)