The story, first published 100 years ago, is classic space opera
JOHN CARTER EPIC
The movie that took 100 years and $250M to make.
National Post ~ March 9, 2012 ~ Chris Knight
When John Carter opens this weekend, it will mark the culmination of more than eight decades spent trying to turn Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars into a movie; the first stirrings of pre-production began in 1931. And while someone with the initials J.C. might be worth that kind of wait, John Carter is not the one.
WALT DISNEY I’m Taylor Kitsch, 30, an Aries, and I like long walks along the B.C. coast, metal breastplates and leather straps.
The story, first published 100 years ago, is classic space opera from the very dawn of the genre. Carter is a U.S. Civil War veteran who’s had a belly full of killing. Running from the cavalry company that insists he re-enlist as an Indian fighter, he stumbles into a mysterious cave and finds himself transported to a scrubby, Utah-like landscape. “Where on Earth am I?’ he wonders aloud, in the way that only those who have been whisked to Mars ever ask.
Yes, Carter has materialized on a red rock the locals call Barsoom. And while we’ve got the gazetteer open, let’s run down a few other place names — there’s Zodanga, which sounds like lost ’ 50s slang for marijuana; the river Iss; and a city-state called Helium, which must have sounded excitingly futuristic in 1912, before we started putting it in party balloons. This also leads to such unfortunate lines as: “If Helium falls …”
The locals have names to match, falling into two basic categories: those that sound like delicious Punjabi cuisine (Kantos Kan, Matai Shang); those that could double as late-model foreign cars (Sarkoja, Tardos Mors); and the odd one that fits both categories (Sab Than). I tried mightily to keep a straight face throughout the introductions, but it’s not easy. The reigning princess of Mars, played by Lynn Collins, is named Dejah Thoris, which I think is Barsoomian for “been there.”
Carter soon discovers that Mars’ low gravity and non-existent air pressure are not the handicaps one might expect. In fact, they give him Supermanly powers – he’s faster than a speeding Thark, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Tharks? Don’t get me started. Mars turns out to be in desperate need of a League of Nations, with several species battling for supremacy. Carter first meets the Tharks, who are green-skinned and three metres tall, with an extra set of arms that must make dressing for formal events a trying affair. Their chief is Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), but you can call him Jeddak, which is Martian for leader. Carter picks up the language after drinking a philological elixir that would have been a great help in Grade 7 French.
The rest of the Martians are a human-looking bunch, which is good news for Carter, who falls for their princess. She is being offered up as a bride and peace offering to Sab Than, a rival Jeddak played by Dominic West. (The marriage subplot is about as 1912 as one can get in a modern movie.) And he is armed and controlled by the mysterious Therns, led by Mark Strong, Hollywood’s go-to ambiguous bad guy.
The result is a messy, complicated affair, stuffed with airship battles, flying eggbeaters, slavering six-legged monsters and a creature that combines the least attractive features of a hairless cat and a bulldog. It’s overwhelming, but one is left feeling not so much awed as exhausted. The humour is either thin — half the Martians address Carter as “Virginia,” mistaking his place of origin for his name — or unintentional, as when others insist on calling him “Johncarter,” one word. This also happened to “Jakesully” in the thematically similar but vastly more entertaining Avatar.
John Carter was directed by Andrew Stanton, making the leap to live action after the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Stanton also wrote the screenplay, aided by Mark Andrews (director of this summer’s animated Brave) and by novelist/script doctor Michael Chabon.
A better (or at least more appropriate) hypothetical version of John Carter can be found midway through its long development history, when stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen showed an interest in putting Barsoom on the screen. This 1980s project would have starred Tom Cruise and been directed by John Mctiernan ( Predator, Die Hard).
Somehow, the idea of stop-motion Tharks in a rear-projected Martian landscape seems more fitting to the pulp history of Burroughs’ novel than this bloated special-effects bonanza. (The author’s other claim to fame, Tarzan of the Apes, first appeared on film in 1918, though its heyday was the 1940s and ’50s.)
We could be watching 1980s John Carter now as Saturday-afternoon TV filler — although there’d be no guarantee Disney wouldn’t attempt a Clash of the Titans style remake. But at least the original would have been spared John Carter’s reported Us$250-million price tag, which represents a sizeable percentage of an actual trip to Mars.
Keen readers will have noticed that I’ve yet to mention Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter. What is there to say? He’s 30, hails from Kelowna, B.C., and has the kind of Conanian barbaric good looks that set off metal breastplates and leather armbands to equal effect.
He can also keep from giggling while saying things like, “We have a saying on Earth,” and (I’m paraphrasing), “Ock ohem oktay,” which is this movie’s “Klaatu barada nikto” moment. If you get that reference, you’re probably in the demographic that’s most excited to see John Carter finally make it to the big screen; and ironically, the one most likely to have your hopes dashed like so much fallen Helium