One of the climactic set-pieces in the Disney adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter features a gladiatorial fight against a “white ape”. This is an overgrown, lumbering, screaming beast more designed for a fearsome appearance than any sense of internal consistency. And when it slows down enough that we get a good look at it, it’s not nearly as convincing as we might hope. There’s a metaphor in there.
Carter — played by the aptly-namd Taylor Kitsch — is the ape’s opponent, along with the Thark Jeddak — leader — Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and the arena is on the planet Barsoom, better known to us as “Mars”. The Thark have a brutal, warrior-centered culture that probably had a lot to do with the characterization of the Klingons in Star Trek. Tars Tarkas must be on his guard against Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), who seeks power for himself; those unfortunates who aren’t particularly warlike, like the gentle Sola (Samantha Morton) risk execution.
There are also humans on Barsoom, though it’s not clear how they got there; this I’ll forgive because I don’t remember if Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars mentioned it either. The mobile city-state of Zodanga — led by Sab Than (Dominic West) — has been laying waste to all the other human cities, especially after the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong) grants him the use of an all-powerful weapon as, he says, a gift from the Goddess. The last city to remain is Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), with a strong culture of art and science. Sab Than offers a truce if he can marry the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), but she would obviously rather not. Besides, she’s on the verge of discovering the scientific basis of the Zodangan weapon herself.
Burroughs wrote wonderfully pulpy novels, with almost as much world-building as Dune, which they also inspired. Unfortunately, like Lynch’s adaptation of that book, this film isn’t nearly enough to capture that level of detail. Burroughs’ novels were also products of their times, and they’re incredibly backwards in many respects. It’s clear from the framing story of Carter as a disillusioned former Virginian cavalry officer from the Civil War that Zodanga and Helium are meant as the two sides in that conflict, and that the Tharks stand in for the Apache and other native tribes; the above description of the Tharks is pretty much the common view on Native Americans in the early 20th century. The film is a little better at hiding Burroughs’ gender politics, at least.
Still, the filmmakers have tried to clean up the material somewhat — the last thing Disney needs is another Song of the South — but between this and the loss of so much world-building there’s almost nothing left of Burroughs’ original spirit. What remains is a completely generic, CGI-driven, indifferently-acted action movie, and when the big action set-pieces wind down the plot and dialogue falls completely flat. There are entirely too many movies like that already, and they didn’t need to pillage science fiction history to do it.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.