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.