The telegraphing of John Carter

Posted by CB Droege

The new film, based on the classic Burroughs novel, A Princess of Mars, is everything it claims to be and more.

I’ve enjoyed Burroughs’ stories since I was a kid, so was understandably concerned about this one.

My worries, however, turned out to be completely unfounded. The adaptation by Disney was clearly
written by someone familiar with the material and who loves it as much as the rest of us.

The major change to the story is in the frame only, imbuing the film with a third-hand sort of quality by inserting Edgar Rice Burroughs himself into the story - and offering the tale of John Carter, here Edgar’s uncle, as the true variation of what Burroughs later wrote.

I could have done without this insertion, but it does not ruin the tale, despite a slight insult to Burroughs’ creativity.

It was also decided that some elements of subsequent John Carter stories needed to be introduced in this film, rather than waiting for a sequel.

This serves to keep clear what would otherwise be an intentional concealment on the part of the filmmakers, and is easily allowed by the dynamics of film, where such revelations wouldn’t have made much sense - even if those aspects had been on Burroughs' mind when he created the first book. This is unlikely, though, as the first hint of such concepts surface only several books later. These details also help provide the audience with an actual explanation for Carter’s transportation, something audiences of the book do not necessarily understand, but which modern audiences need.

The allegory and symbolism of the original tale is maintained here, giving commentary on frontier relations with natives, and expanding governmental power. These are the same issues Burroughs was commenting on, rather than updating the commentary to fit our modern world, which can be a great mistake if care is not taken to do it properly. No effort is made either to update the technology or terminology of the piece, which is similarly appreciated. 

As expected, all of the effects are spectacular, but I was never really worried about that. I knew even if everything else was terrible, the film itself would boast great visual effects and combat scenes. It does not disappoint in the slightest, and even surprises with the artfulness of some of the combat.

For example, in one scene at the mid-point of the film, Carter’s anger and despair is made fully apparent by a scene which combines an overwhelming impossible-to-win fight against hundreds of evil Tharks with interspersed clips of Carter back on earth, years ago, discovering and burying the bodies of his wife and daughter. This kind of scene gives the film purpose, making it more than just the classic story shoved on to a screen. It does something evocative and beautiful with the original story which could only have been done in this medium.

I’ll admit my greatest worry was about the performance of Taylor Kitsch, whom I saw as too much of a meathead to take on the role properly, with no genre experience, and his biggest role to date being in a prime time drama about high school football, of all things. So, I just couldn’t see it. Nevertheless, he manages to play well the reluctant, yet noble hero, and while visually he may not match my vision of John Carter, I think he pulls it off. 

Lynn Collins plays the princess about exactly as I always pictured her, and Willem Defoe is unrecognizable in the role of Tars Tarkas, but shows himself to be a skilled motion capture performer. The mocap itself is all incredible with every scene showing the Tharks completely seamless - looking and feeling natural - even in the scenes with great thronging crowds of many armed Martians.

Overall, with the excellent performances, stunning effects, great interpretation of the classic story, and the potential for a grand franchise to follow, John Carter has found its way quickly onto my list of the best sci-fi adventure films of all time, right between Blade Runner and Alien. Only caveat: Skip the 3D, it’s the crappy, tacked on, post-production sort.

John Carter is in theaters now.