Just in time for the 100th anniversary of its first publication, “Tarzan” author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” gets the 3-D blockbuster treatment from Disney under the revised title “John Carter.” This new franchise should have been a sure thing, with a novel that has endured in readers’ hearts, a vividly imagined universe that has influenced everything from “Star Wars” to “Avatar,” and a talented director, Andrew Stanton of Pixar, who had scored big with “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo.”
Nevertheless, “John Carter” is projected to become Disney’s biggest flop ever, underperforming wildly at the box office to the tune of an estimated $200 million loss, with all plans for sequels put on hold. Of course, this is Disney, the same company that cunningly resurrected its biggest flop of a previous decade, “Tron.” The Mouse knows how to monetize.
But how could you go wrong with Barsoom (as Burroughs called his fictional Mars)? Barsoom, where former Confederate cavalry officer and Southern gentleman John Carter wakes from a trance to find himself among the savage, towering, green, multi-limbed Tharks, a nomadic tribe devoid of human empathy. Barsoom, home to the “incomparable” Dejah Thoris, regal red-skinned princess of civilized Helium and captive of the Tharks, who — like every occupant of the planet — appears clothed in nothing but her jewelry. Barsoom, with its classic mix of futurism and atavism, where the mysterious Ninth Ray powers great warships through the sky, and where caravans travel the desert wastes on their monstrous eight-legged Thoats.
Burroughs — a jack-of-all-trades and former cavalryman with a feverish imagination — took exotic Orientalist fantasies and frontier fear of savage tribes and filtered it through early 20th-century speculation that the “canals” of Mars hinted at a lost civilization. The result was the crown jewel of pulp fiction. (Literally: Burroughs wrote for All-Story Magazine, one of the era’s many cheap and sensationalist periodicals printed on ragged wood-pulp paper.)
The Barsoom series has been the bible for pretty much all science-fantasy that has come since. It had none of JRR Tolkien’s tendency to mythic allegory, and focused solely on savage duels, breathless rescues and a cliffhanger every other chapter, but with a penchant for descriptive detail that made its world come alive.
The Disney version, on the other hand, feels particularly airless, like everything that was good about the book got lost in endless committee meetings. Just take the title: Gone is any reference to Mars — supposedly box-office poison after flops such as “Mars Needs Moms” — in favor of a generic-sounding name that imbues none of the space-opera magic.
Then there’s the script: Stanton shoves bits of Burroughs’ second novel into the first, making the plot as raggedy as David Lynch’s notorious “Dune.” He also adds an evil super-villain who wants to rule the planet; presumably this is the only story big enough to justify a budget of $250 million these days. But really, this trope is so overused in American cinema that it’s starting to feel like projection.
The bigger problem by far is that Disney shudders at the thought of all the things that make good pulp fiction. You sure won’t see a Thark rip his opponent in half with his tusks in this film. And while the pecs and six-pack of leading man Taylor Kitsch are displayed as prominently as in any lurid Frank Frazetta illustration, you won’t see much skin on Lynn Collins’ Dejah — this despite the fact that she may be the most eroticized heroine in all of fantasy literature. (Just Google “Dejah” to see what I mean, but perhaps not while at work.)
Stanton turns Dejah into a science geek in a robe, basically Rachel Weisz from “Agora” but with kick-ass sword skills. The one time she dons an outfit most belly dancers would find conservative, the scriptwriters feed her a line about how “vulgar” those Zodangan clothes are; by this standard, Tinkerbell is clearly a harlot. Disney, so often criticized for marketing the passive princess myth to young girls, seems to have overcompensated in the other direction here.
When Carter rallies his green comrades with the hokey line “Tharks did not cause this, but by Issus, Tharks will end it!,” I found myself wondering when exactly Stanton had got in touch with his inner George Lucas. All the pathos, the humor, the real emotions that marked “Wall-E” are gone, gone, gone. (As is the environmental theme, despite there being a clear one in Burroughs’ books set on a planet devastated by climate change.)
Barsoom also looks pretty derivative of the desert planet Tatooine from “Star Wars,” which is perhaps inevitable, given that Lucas borrowed so heavily from Burroughs’ world. What was needed was a complete rethink on how to stylistically portray Barsoom, something like what H.R. Giger did to sci-fi with “Alien.” It didn’t happen, though. This is lazy, middle-of-the-road filmmaking from beginning to end.