Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a swashbuckling 1930s film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-World War I science-fiction novel A Princess of Mars. It stars Errol Flynn — or maybe Johnny Weissmuller, if that parallel Hollywood hasn’t taken to adapting Burroughs’ Tarzan novels instead — and Hedy Lamarr as the titular brainy royal, and even though it’s corny and melodramatic, it sizzles with sex and danger and excitement. Its prejudices and intolerances make it dated to modern eyes, but it’s easy to look past them, seeing as how little removed it is from Burroughs’ own day.
Maybe someday soon, in the wake of how golden-age-gilded The Artist has been embraced, someone will make such a tongue-in-cheek retro throwback. That would be cool.
This John Carter, a dreary Disneyfied inconsequence, features all the bigotries of century-old pulp fiction and none of the romance, neither the sexual nor the adventurous kind. It’s the tale of a white American man, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, who in 1868 travels, by way of some sci-fi hocus-pocus, from the dusty western frontier to the dusty plains of Mars. Here, he teaches the native beings — 12-foot-tall creatures with green skin, blue blood, four arms and, clearly, a deep, rich culture of their own — the error of their alien ways, and of course the Martians do not laugh at him as utterly absurd but embrace him and his bizarre ideas wholeheartedly: instantly! with nary a moment’s hesitation! He’s a white man, so he must be right, is the evergreen underlying assumption, and even intelligent civilizations on other planets know this. It’s particularly odd to see such ethnobiocentricism when the setup part of the story touches on the culture clash between the Native Americans and the white colonials in the Old West — I figured this meant we’d get a more nuanced and sensitive exploration of the meeting of two worlds on Mars.
Ha. I am so silly for having expected such a thing.
On the flip side, it’s fairly appalling to realize that when it comes to the depiction of women, Burroughs’ may have been ahead of us — or, at least, ahead of Disney. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, City Island) — a goddess whom Hollywood has thus far failed to give her due — as Dejah Thoris, the Martian princess of the title, is far more intriguing a character than Taylor Kitsch’s (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Snakes on a Plane) bland Carter. See, there are humans on Mars, too — no explanation as to how they got there; probably they emigrated through the sci-fi hocus-pocus thingie millennia ago — and they’ve been ensnared in a civil war of their own for a thousand years or so. Dejah is a princess of the “good” side, and she’s also a warrior and a scientist, nay, “Regent of the Royal Academy of Science.” How cool is that? She doesn’t need Carter to rescue her at all (until, of course, she does *sigh*). The movie honestly should be all about her: certainly, that would have been a way to modernize an old story that is desperately screaming for an attitudinal shift. But at least Burroughs honestly titled his story A Princess of Mars. Disney has, of course, totally coopted the idea of what a “princess” is, and it ain’t “awesome warrior scientist babe who wipes the floor with the male protagonist,” if only for part of the film.
There are some moderately interesting things here. Mars looks great: the landscape, the CGI non-Terran people — CGI mo-capped and voiced by fine actors including Samantha Morton (Synecdoche, New York, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Willem Dafoe (Miral, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant), and Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, Easy A) — and animals, the technology — the flying machines have a lovely Jules Verne feel to them — and even the sense that gravity is lighter. But when the action ramps up — which feels both too often and not often enough, between how it drags and then how chaotic it is — we lose track of all sense of what’s happening. In between the action, tedious info dumps do the same thing: tell us too much and not enough. I never understood all the political machinations among the humans — a motely crew of pulp stereotypes played by Ciaran Hinds (The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), Dominic West (Arthur Christmas, The Awakening), James Purefoy (Ironclad, Beau Brummell: This Charming Man), and Mark Strong (Black Gold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) — or the 12-foot-tall guys, and as soon as we leave Earth there’s a disconnect between John Carter on Mars and John Carter as a man of 19th century America: if he feels anything at all about being caught in the middle of another civil war, we never learn it.
It’s hard to fathom how director and cowriter Andrew Stanton could have screwed this up, when his Toy Story 3 (which he cowrote) and Wall-E (which he cowrote and directed) are so wise and wonderful. John Carter bears no resemblance at all to those flicks. How can it be that stories about plastic toys and sentient robots are more touching and more true than a story about (allegedly) real people, both alien and human?