One hundred years after its original serialization in The All-Story magazine, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic A Princess of Mars found itself in an incredibly strange position when the film adaptation finally reached movie theatres. The movie was saddled with a terrible, bland title that makes sense only to people who’d read the book and a marketing campaign that utterly failed to stir viewers’ interests. According to Hollywood lore, the director, Andrew Stanton, thought that the character John Carter was much better known than it turned out he was, and also that teen males wouldn’t want to go see a movie called “A Princess of Mars” (which, for the record, was a really stupid idea). In addition to this bungling, the book’s storyline had been so influential since its publication, referenced by dozens of works like Flash Gordon, Dune, Star Wars and, most recently, 2009’s Avatar, that the audiences who actually did end up seeing it must have thought they were being ripped off.
John Carter, the stalwart Virginian fighting man who could cut down legions of multi-limbed Martian monsters while armed only with his trusty blade and radium pistol, never stood a chance against his greatest foe: his cultural irrelevance. Which is a shame, considering the movie is actually quite good. To wit, while the story beats of the film are no doubt familiar, what makes Stanton’s follow up to the massive success of WALL-E special is the talent, the tone, and the production design of the project.
John Carter, the stalwart Virginian fighting man who could cut down legions of multi-limbed Martian monsters while armed only with his trusty blade and radium pistol, never stood a chance against his greatest foe: his cultural irrelevance.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Confederate Army cavalry officer who returns home from the war to find his family massacred and his life burnt to the ground. Grief-stricken, he becomes a gold prospector in Arizona and, after escaping from a pitched battle between the U.S. Army and the Apache, he ends up magically teleported to Mars, which its inhabitants call Barsoom. Here, his strength and agility are increased ten-fold due to Barsoom’s lesser gravity, but this still doesn’t stop him from getting captured and pressed into service once more, this time by Dejah Thoris, the beautiful Princess of Helium, who needs him to fight against the rival city-state of Zodanga.
To translate the story for modern audiences, Stanton and fellow Pixar employee Mark Andrews collaborated with the perfect writer for the project: Michael Chabon. The author of Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was an inspired choice to pen the screenplay, as he’s a fan and expert in pulpy material in addition to being a Pulitzer, O. Henry, Nebula and Hugo award winner. Chabon is also credited with working on Spider-Man 2, the best of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man film and, more importantly, just gets the material and the tone it needed to be successful. Apart from the awkward opening to the film explaining how Mars, aka. Barsoom, is a dying world (delivered by Willem Defoe’s character Tars Tarkas with shades of Virginia Madsen’s monologue preceding Dune), the story of John Carter is related to us in the form of fun banter between the Princess and the former soldier, excellent villain monologuing by Mark Strong and Dominic “McNulty” West, and a refreshingly irony-free approach to the more outré elements of the story. There’s also a cute metatextual conceit remaining from the original book; i.e. that the story actually happened and that Edgar Rice Burroughs himself is only relating it to us, but this isn’t dwelled upon long enough for it to become annoying.
The world of Barsoom also provides excellent roles for female characters, which is potentially unusual considering the age of the original story. Dejah Thoris, ably played by Lynn Collins, has definitely been augmented from the source material; instead of the perennial kidnap victim of the novels, she’s now a member of her city-state’s scientific orders and is the one that figures out concepts like how Carter ended up on Barsoom, and the origin of the mysterious “ninth ray” that powers Zodanga’s war machine. This is in addition to being a skilled fighter who saves the hero’s behind on multiple occasions. The more interesting character to me, though, comes in the form of Sola, played by Samantha Morton. Sola is a Thark, a twelve-foot tall green-skinned warrior with four arms and she’s also the daughter of the chief, Tars Tarkas. Thark society forbids knowledge of who your parents are, though, so she’s also forever getting in trouble for being too kind to captives like John Carter, incurring the wrath of the father she doesn’t really know in the harsh Thark justice system.
Name another sci-fi film that features three different approaches to father/daughter bonds. Go on, I’ll wait.
Sola is a fully-realized character; she is craven at times, like when faced with the potential desecration of Thark religious ceremonies, but at other instances is as bloodthirsty and down to ride as the rest of her kin. There’s also an interesting tenor to hers and Tarkas’ relationship, once they are able to speak it out loud: a mutual respect continues to grow and Sola finds herself having to defend her father once he’s dethroned and sentenced to death in the arena. Compare her to the very similarly-themed Neytiri from Avatar, who is a much more traditional Pocahontas-type character (also much more sexualized, if deviantART is to be believed), or the Orion Slave Girls and Twi’leks from Stars Trek and Wars, respectively. Sola is also part of the film’s trinity of father-daughter relationships, alongside Dejah and her controlling father Tardos Mors, as well as John Carter and the idealized daughter he ended up burying after coming back from the Civil War. Name another sci-fi film that features three different approaches to father/daughter bonds. Go on, I’ll wait.
The production design of the film is also top-notch. To me, the rich red hues and brass fixtures found on Barsoomian tech and living arrangements recall steampunk and the richly-realized world found in HBO’s Rome and Game of Thrones series. There’s an appealing lived-in quality to otherwise ridiculous things like airships and giant walking cities that you don’t find in a lot of Hollywood science fiction film outside of works like Serenity or Moon. I also really like the design of Carter’s home back on Earth, as it’s stuffed to the brim with artifacts, maps, and other ephemera collected once he’s marooned and searching for a route back to Mars. There’s a tactility and presence to the world that elevates the production and makes you care about the story. I also really enjoy the organic, almost fungus-like fractal way that the ninth ray works, it’s an interesting technique to apply to what could easily have been another “grey goop” nanotechnology concept.
Undoubtedly, I was in the tank for John Carter to succeed from the very beginning. One of my fondest memories growing up comes from looking through the luridly awesome cover paintings found on my father’s reissue versions of the Barsoom books. I read them all in junior high, and then again in high school. So, when the movie came out, I was happy to see that the narrative translated so well. I’m not going to argue that John Carter is an original work by any means, even though it was at one time, but I do think that the film version does have some redeeming features that make it worth a watch.
CC Photo Credit: Disney