First, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a straight guy, and even I think Taylor Kitsch is a handsome devil.
That’s Kitsch dressed up as my boyhood hero in full Barsoomian regalia, from his new movie John Carter. Now, I’ve probably confused you. “Boyhood hero? Are you MamaPop’s resident 10-year-old ubermensch writer, Jason?” And more than a few of you saw the trailers to the Disney blockbuster and thought, “say, guy gets transported to a mysterious planet, befriends a bunch of tall aliens, becomes their greatest warrior, and joins them to fight encroaching humans…where have I seen that before?” Before you say Avatar and curse John Carter for being yet another unoriginal Hollywood money machine, allow me to educate you.
When I was about ten, I was with my parents perusing the sci-fi section of Waldenbooks (pours one out) when I came across a book with a rather striking cover – a Frank Frazetta painting of a burly guy swinging a longsword at a giant white ape with a very hot, very scantily clad woman at his feet. The book was called A Princess of Mars, and while the title was a bit offputting, that cover was irresistible. These were the desert years, between Star Wars and Empire, and I needed something to fill in the geeky gap. From page one, I was hooked: an ex-Confederate soldier, chased into a cave by Apache warriors, finds himself transported to the planet Mars – called Barsoom by its many inhabitants – and basically spends the next few hundred pages swordfighting, racing through the Martian air on flying battleships, rescuing the titular princess from several nasty villains/creatures, and swordfighting. The book is basically one long setpiece, and much of it was familiar – even at ten, I recognized a ripoff when I saw one, and the guy that wrote it, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was gonna be in a heap of trouble when George Lucas read his books. Then I saw the copyright date: 1917.
Burroughs wrote 11 John Carter books in all, and they’re all pretty much the same: dated, ridiculous, and an incredible amount of fun to read. I tore through them all over the course of a year, and while I was hoping against hope to eventually see a John Carter movie, the realist in 10-year-old me knew that it would be a tough sell. The books were epic in scale – huge battles, giant monsters, stuff that probably couldn’t be done with the special effects tools of the time. Plus, you know, Mars is a freezing cold, lifeless planet with a thin, unbreathable atmosphere. Still, when I heard that Disney was finally making a movie out of the series, I started talking it up to my son. My kid’s not quite old enough to read the books, but that didn’t stop me from getting him psyched up to see the movie. I was out of town when he did, and I’m happy to report that he loved it.
Sadly, most people weren’t as geeked over the flick as he was. In fact, it flopped. Big time. As in “cost one hundred sixty five million to make, grossed $30 million on its opening weekend”. I can’t help but be bummed out about this. Disney and director Andrew Stanton were (of course) planning a trilogy of John Carter movies, and unless $350 million worth of ticket sales are generated by folks who read this post and immediately run to the theaters, that will never happen. If you were one of the few (we’ll get to that in a second) that saw the movie when it opened, you probably observed that the movie is pretty much just like the following: Avatar, The Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, Dances With Wolves, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Conan the Barbarian, Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man and The Masters of The Universe…hell, even the Macguffin of Total Recall (the Atmosphere Generating Pyramid Thingy) was lifted from Burroughs. So the “ripoff” buzz didn’t help , even though Burroughs thought of all of this stuff first.
To me, though, the biggest strike the movie had against it was the title. The original title of the flick was John Carter of Mars, which sounds way cooler. But for some reason, it was shortened to John Carter, possibly to fool people into thinking it was gonna be like Jerry Maguire or Larry Crowne. The title tells you nothing. When the kid and I first saw a poster for the flick, he had no idea what it was about. For all he knew, it could have been about this dude:
So that’s likely the last we’ll see of John Carter on the big screen. Sigh. On the flip side, I’m sure my son will want to read the books when he’s a bit older. (Bonus: in the books, the female characters don’t wear any clothes.) Plus, I figured I’ve saved myself a few hundred dollars by not having to purchase John Carter action figures, ray guns, and swords for the kid.