When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars back in 1912, there was nothing like it. That book and the ones that followed in the John Carter series went on to inspire the imaginations of hundreds of science fiction writers and there’s little doubt that we have the mind of Burroughs to thank for everything from Star Wars to Tron. But that doesn’t mean the books or the movie based on them are really as good as those things they inspired.
I’m not sure how well Burroughs’ sci-fi books have aged. Read now they feel a little thin on explanation. While Burroughs put a lot of thought into some parts of his stories, developing the different races of Barsoom or coming up with a great scientific explanation for John Carter’s increased strength and leaping ability, in other areas he just sort of glosses over key elements. It’s never entirely clear, for instance, how a Civil War cavalry officer actually gets from Earth to Mars in the first place. Bringing the story of John Carter into the modern era means filling in a lot of those gaps and while the movie comes up with some very good ideas which do just that, it also means we’re left with a film that’s far longer than it should be and far less impactful than it might have been.
That doesn’t mean, however, that as a movie John Carter isn’t good. It’s at least as good as Avatar which, by the way, wasn’t just inspired by Burroughs’ Barsoom books but basically rips them off. Both movies suffer from story problems though and both movies are overlong. The emotion which should be there isn’t and while John Carter does a brilliant job of developing supporting characters it feels clumsy when it comes to its hero, John Carter.
Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is set up as a man in mourning; his mind wanders constantly to the family he lost in war. Unfortunately, Taylor Kitsch is an actor with only one expression and none of the emotion of what he’s supposed to be feeling comes through. Eventually Carter ends up in a strange place, where he encounters green four-armed alien barbarians called Tharks, and their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Tharks are wonderfully realized, a complex alien society which soon adopts Carter as one of their own. John Carter is worth seeing for the Tharks, and Dafoe’s performance as Tars Tarkas, alone.
Into their midst drops a beautiful princess on the run. She’s a take charge warrior scientist (really) named Dejah Thoris and she needs John’s help. Barsoom’s other alien race, who look a lot like reddish-skinned humans, is at war and Carter may be the secret weapon who can end it. He’s a tremendous warrior and the movie’s battle sequences are a load of fun. There’s a sequence later on in the film in which Carter takes on an entire army of Tharks, and as the bodies pile up around him it’s an unforgettable battle. Though it’s hard not to notice that this is every bit a Disney movie, as the film cuts away from every sword stroke to minimize the violence.
But it takes forever to get to the good parts. Much of the movie’s plot is spent on looking for a way to explain Carter’s arrival on Barsoom and, alternatively, looking for a way to get him home. John Carter is at its best whenever John stops questioning and simply goes with the flow, laying waste to Thark hordes or playing a game of chase with his lovably speedy pet Woola. Lost amidst all the film’s awkward exposition, Disney’s determination to keep Burroughs’ decidedly rated-R story family friendly, and Taylor Kitsch’s permanently squinty expression is the emotional core of this story, which for all its charm, John Carter never truly zeroes in on. Go for the spectacle, go for the fun, just don’t expect anything as significant as the impact made by Burroughs’ books back when he first wrote them.