Sci-fi goes back to its roots: ‘Carter’ does Burroughs proud
A little respect, please. “John Carter’’ only appears to be a $250 million space turkey named after a chartered accountant. It only seems like the pureed hash of “Star Wars,’’ “Avatar,’’ and every other interplanetary rocket rodeo since the genre was invented.
Actually, the movie’s based on the book that invented the genre. Edgar Rice Burroughs debuted “A Princess of Mars’’ in the pages of the pulp-fiction magazine the All-Story almost exactly a century ago, following it up with no less than 10 novels in the “Barsoom’’ series (Barsoom being his Martians’ name for their home planet). “Princess’’ was Burroughs’s first published work - the “Tarzan’’ series that sealed his fame came later - and it is a direct influence on everything that ensued: “Flash Gordon,’’ Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,’’ “Babylon 5,’’ and, yes, George Lucas’s and James Cameron’s little space operas, as those directors would be the first to tell you. Astronomer Carl Sagan confessed to being a lifelong fan. “A Princess of Mars’’ has set a million dreams in motion.
So here’s the movie version, sprung upon a 21st-century public that has long forgotten the source in a pop-culture flood of Saturday afternoon serials, comic strips, junk TV shows, computerized digital effects, and fanboy fantasy blogs. (ComicCon wouldn’t even exist without Burroughs.) It has been retitled “John Carter’’ with almost perverse banality and brought to the screen by some surprising worthies: director/co-writer Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame (“Finding Nemo,’’ “WALL-E’’) and co-writer Michael Chabon of literary immortality (although if writing “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’’ doesn’t qualify him for this adventure, I don’t know what does).
And, against the odds, “John Carter’’ is itself pretty amazing - an epic pulp saga that slowly rises to the level of its best imitations and wins you over by degrees. I say that as a grown-up moviegoer; behind me at a recent screening was a row of 10-year-old boys who were ecstatically in from the get-go. That’s probably all that matters.
If the movie had a leading actor with the galactic charisma necessary for the task, we might even be talking classic sci-fi. Since it’s impossible to put Harrison Ford into the Wayback Machine, though, we’re stuck with the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch (TV’s “Friday Night Lights’’) as John Carter, the burned-out Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to the Red Planet while searching for gold in the caves of Arizona. Kitsch is decent company - manly, muscled, noble, sardonic - but there’s nothing unique about him, and we follow him by default.
Also, it takes a while to sort out the others. Carter lands amid the Tharks, a warrior tribe of tall, green, four-armed Bugaboos lorded over by the Jeddak, or Chieftain, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). They inhabit the vast wastelands of the now-dry planet, but over in the fertile sector, the peace-loving humanoids of Helium are having their behinds handed to them by the bellicose humanoids of Zodanga. Sab Than (Dominic West) is the head bad guy and Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) is the leader of Helium; his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is the fetching fighter princess the villain intends to take as his betrothed.
Then there are the Holy Therns, a group of interstellar meddlers led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who has been airlifted in from the third “Barsoom’’ novel. They’re backing Sab Than with futuristic weaponry just because they like to see other civilizations go kerplooey.
What’s a strapping Earthling to do in this three-way chess game? Bound about like a jumping bean, for one thing - the lesser gravity of Mars frees up Carter to perform aerial feats of heroism that stop the Barsoomians in their tracks. Burroughs didn’t invent the white man’s fantasy of becoming another race’s Chosen One, but he was the first to set it on a different planet. Cameron, for one, was taking notes.
So was everyone else, apparently: Part of the weirdness of “John Carter’’ is watching the movie take its own shape out of bits so familiar they’re practically in our collective unconscious. The sniping hero-and-princess schtick, the arena battle with the raging alien Tuskodonts, the zooming chase scenes in space - all present and accounted for. You can see what was lifted from Burroughs for “The Princess Bride’’ and even “Lawrence of Arabia,’’ or is it the other way around? Is “John Carter’’ a pop-culture blueprint or a Xeroxed copy with the toner running low?
In the end, it’s immaterial. Crucially, Stanton and his team neither mock the genre nor grovel before it. They have the confidence that their story will work (it does) and that its roots are strong enough to sustain our attention for the first or the umpteenth time. “John Carter’’ is built largely out of digital bits, obviously, but it feels like it takes place in a real world, with majestic Utah locations standing in for the plains of Barsoom. The movie has been given an acceptable post-production 3-D rinse, but, other than turning the whole thing brown, the technology’s unnecessary. I stopped noticing the 3-D five minutes in; what Hollywood keeps forgetting is that we’ll do the algorithms in our heads if the movie’s good.
And “John Carter’’ is good - not great, but captivating enough, detailed enough, Saturday-afternoon-silly enough to bring out the kid in you one more time. Better yet, to make it feel like the first time.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.