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“Take up a cause. Fall in love. Write a book.”
- John Carter to Edgar Rice Burroughs

John Carter is a $250 million throwback to 1950s pulp sci-fi spectacle and the stunning CGI visuals and decent 3D effects actually contribute to that vibe.

A Princess of Mars

Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is the latest Pixar magician to defect to live action cartoons. Brad Bird also did it in December with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, a movie which made Tom Cruise look almost as lifelike as the human boy in the original Toy Story.

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, this interpretation of John Carter’s first adventure on Mars is an impressive piece of storytelling; there’s certainly more to chew on here than in Ethan Hunt’s latest adventure. And no doubt Disney sees this as franchise material, particularly given Burroughs wrote 10 more books in his Barsoom saga.

That saga begins with a veteran confederate captain named John Carter, a tough hooligan and a fighting machine on an earthbound mission in 1868 Arizona. He’s obsessed with finding a cave full of gold and an ugly run-in with a band of Indians (ooops, Native Americans) serendipitously forces him smack dab into the cave of his quest. One thing leads to another, as they tend to do in stories like this, and John winds up on Mars, referred to by the indigenous beings as the planet Barsoom.

Cowboys & Aliens

It turns out Barsoom’s warring tribes are hell-bent on self-destruction, if not self-preservation, much like Earth’s human race. A “predator city” is on the move, devouring other cities with a goal of world domination.

Burroughs – and Stanton – uses this setting to convey themes of racism, religious zealotry, ecology, culture, and freedom.

John Carter is a great, great character and, while Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights) isn’t always credible and sometimes comes across as a little leaden, there’s enough of that “great man” persona on screen to make this rendition compelling. Carter’s a hardworking man, highly skilled, ambitious, and fighting the memories and ghosts of a horrible past. He’s haunted by the grisly deaths of his wife and daughter.

This is the genre-bending, far-reaching adventure Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been and a story that reveals itself to a wider audience as the inspiration behind popular pablum like Avatar.

The Martian Chronicles

Originally published 100 years ago, Burroughs’ work is a terrific read to this day. With any luck, moviegoers will pick up on the story’s origins and dig into those classic works of pure pulp fiction. As found in editions subsequent to the original serial version published under the pseudonym Norman Bean, the tale is told as a chronicle written by Carter and left to his nephew, none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs himself.

A lot of ground is covered in this tale that moves from 1881 New York City back to 1868 Arizona then Mars and then Earth once again. The weighty agenda starts to run on the long side as the Martian climax approaches, a sluggishness that can in part be attributed to the murky handling of a tribe of changelings led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes).

Even so, the story of John Carter, a family man and a warrior, carries some of the same soulfulness found in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Carter faces one challenge after another and manages to rise above. And when his unnatural abilities as a human on Mars become the envy of those in need of his help, it’s hard to turn away when asked, “If you had the power to save lives, wouldn’t you make it so?”

In the thick of this adventure Carter meets the titular Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, Wolverine), an unearthly beauty who is every bit Carter’s match in terms of integrity and bravery. But she needs his help to save her people. Trite? Perhaps. But, c’mon, the triteness derives from 100 years of others plundering Burroughs’ work for oftentimes uncredited inspiration.

With its reportedly $250 million price tag, John Carter is a huge gamble that doesn’t pay off in spades, but it is a well-meaning piece of pure cinematic ambition that earns a fair amount of respect.