Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars was published in 1917. And now, in 2012, a big budget Hollywood movie based on the tale that inspired science fiction like Star Wars and Avatar finally came out. The problem? It’s far too late.
It’s a shame. There’s some considerable talent behind this film. Andrew Stanton’s endeavors with Pixar have been noted. Wall-E and Finding Nemo are two of the best animated films I’ve ever seen. He’s served as a writer on countless other Pixar films. And hey, that Michael Chabon guy and a cast filled with Mark Strong, Willem Defoe, Taylor Kitsch, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church and Lynn Collins isn’t bad.
Unfortunately, the material they have to work with doesn’t live up to their talent. See, John Carter is about a former Confederate soldier who’s transported to Mars. He’s a shell of a person that is only out for himself, but when he gets to Mars he learns to care about other people and saves a Princess. Cool, that’s fine and well and good. The problem is that the film sticks too close to the source material.
A pulpy science fiction story from 1917 transported into 2012 doesn’t work unless you change a couple things. The effort to stay close to the material is admirable, but in some cases it just doesn’t make sense. The worst example is Dejah Thoris’s plight with her father. She’s being forced into a marriage, yet she’s the head of the science academy and is pretty good warrior. She’s an independent woman that can’t choose who to marry. Of course, Burrough’s wrote this before woman’s suffrage.
This could have been solved if the film was slimmed down. There are so many subplots and things going on that it feels like a burden to watch at times. Here’s what’s going on: there’s an over-arching thread where Carter’s nephew reads a book about his journey to Mars. Then there’s Carter getting transported to Mars. Then there’s Carter meeting the green alien Tharks and becoming one of them. Then there’s Carter falling in love with Dejah Thoris. Then there’s this civil war between people who wear red and people who where blue. Then there are these bald shape-shifting-teleporting dudes that play God with different planets. And there’s more.
I got tired just writing all that. Imagine if you had to watch it? Now, John Carter isn’t all terrible. There are some genuinely good moments in this film. Of course, with Stanton as director there are bound to be good moments. It just sucks that Stanton the writer couldn’t match up. Some of the action sequences are handled really well and him meeting the green Tharks for the first time is real entertaining. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in the lead roles do a fine job and do what’s asked of them.
It all ends up feeling like a half-inflated balloon though. There was an opportunity for something really good here. If Stanton and his team had just followed Pixar’s mantra more closely and kept it simple then the story that’s almost a hundred years old could have been modernized to match stuff that it inspired. Oh, and don’t watch it in 3D (even though the majority of showings are in 3D), it makes the special effects look worse than they are.