How influential has Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series of novels been on popular culture? Put it like this: Earthman John Carter, thanks to gravity and bone density, can leap and fight outside his weight class on Mars; this is the exact rationale that made Superman super in his first appearances. Burroughs shifted the conventions of Haggardian Lost Race/City adventures from Africa to Mars, and thus set the precedent for Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar and hundreds of other properties and franchises. Indeed, these books have so permeated what came after that a faithful film adaptation of a book first published in 1917 runs the risk of seeming like an imitation of all the other derivative properties that have made it to the big or small screen over the decades. There was an Asylum cheapie A Princess of Mars, made a spoiler for this long-in-the-works epic, the first live action feature from WALL-E’s Andrew Stanton, starring a couple of supporting players from (gulp) X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and adhering to an immutable law of Hollywood epic by populating an alien (or ancient) world with British accented exotics who are still no match for an archetypal American straight-ahead hero.
The film starts awkwardly with three or four prologues that drop us into the intrigues of Mars (good and bad cities of red humans at war, four-armed green Tharks, and mysterious, powerful Therms manipulating it all), find John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) pursued by a bowler-hatted creepy guy through 1880s New York, then bring in E.R. Burroughs himself (Daryl Sabara, ex-Spy Kid) to receive the estate of his late uncle who ha sjust dropped mysteriously dead and been interred in strange circumstances, prompting a reading of Carter’s journal which establishes the Western set-up for the story proper. A former Confederate officer (it’s always been a problem for me that he fought for slavery and didn’t feel bad about it but the issue is ducked here), Carter has just struck it rich by finding a cave full of gold and has to escape from the US Army (repped by the busy Bryan Cranston), dodge Apaches and shoot a Therm before picking up an amulet and finding his consciousness transferred to Barsoom – which is what the natives call Mars – in a superstrong duplicate body. His own body is asleep back on Earth, which gives the whole thing an Alice in Wonderland dream rationale; in Carter’s ‘no place like home’ position, there’s a Wizard of Oz theme too. On Mars, Carter falls in with the Tharks, bonding with tribal leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe’s voice) when Tars’ unacknowledged daughter (Samantha Morton) wants to foster the strange hatchling (the way Tarzan’s ape mother does).
The Tharks are a lot like the fantasy Africans of Haggard or the Apache of Karl May – noble warriors and great characters but ‘wrong’ as a society (parents loving their children is shameful) in a way which requires a white ubermensch to correct. Tharks are fearless in battle, but given to gladiatorial combats, in-fighting (Tars Tarkas has to fend off baddie plotters) and dying in faceless multitudes. They are nevertheless a lot less decadent and painted than the British-accented human factions. Witness: love interest Dejah Thoris (Lynne Collins), princess of Helium, whose father (also busy Ciaran Hinds) wants her to marry Sab Than (Dominic West), wicked prince of the ‘predator city’ Zodanga, who has been given a blue gauntlet of zapping power by sneaky Therm Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Carter has a proper Casablanca arc from selfishly wanting to get home to his gold through growing loyalties to his friends (and a pure love for Dejah which prompts him to crash the royal wedding like a space-age Graduate) to change his allegiance, so he is John Carter of Mars in the end credits (the smooch interrupted by his being beamed back to Earth would later lead to the whole Adam Strange series). Given the recent example of Green Lantern, which tried to make hero Hal Jordan seem less square by turning him into a frat boy asshole, it’s a little miracle that Kitsch’s Carter has emerged as an old-fashioned manly good guy, who has to play straight man to a more bizarre supporting cast but eventually impresses by his feats. His discovery of his newfound superpowers is a credible, funny sequence, and it’s hard to resist Burroughsian business like Carter holding up as hordes of monsters pile on top of him while he remembers his lost family in Earth (the war, you know) or he’s pitted against two giant four-armed ‘white apes’ in the arena and emerges covered in blue blood from a carcass.
Bereft of the contemporary political resonances of Flash Gordon (made in an age of Hitler and Mussolini) or Avatar (more critical of US policy in Iraq than Oscar rival The Hurt Locker), this is epic adventure in a risky, old-fashioned manner. It has a Disney castle at the beginning. Its characters are broad strokes and lacking in the usual neuroses. But it delivers on the promise of the 1970s paperback covers of the Burroughs reissues – huge scenes of alien melees, weird landscapes (the segue from Texas to Barsoom is a contrast of deserts), flying cities (and machines), monsters, swordfights, true love, wedding finery, scheming and plotting, some humour (Carter is embarrassed that the Tharks think Virginia is his name rather than his home state) and a sense of the grand gesture that makes it a much more satisfying watch that quite a few recent blockbusters (Cowboys & Aliens, say – the project Jon Favreau, once attached as director, made instead). Given how big sf/fantasy is onscreen, it’s odd that the literary classics of the form are so rarely filmed – you’d have to go back to Dune to find an equivalent book filmed on such a scale (and that precedent might explain why it’s been so long). Industry pundits are iffy on this – a title change during production and a few other telltales that wouldn’t mean much to civilians set off alarm bells – but I was won over by its heart.