Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars began its initial serialized publication exactly 100 years ago; it reflects a nostalgia for the vanishing frontier common to that period of increasing urbanization. If the last century—and its many westerns—have made it difficult for us to share that same romantic view of the Old West, then John Carter, a long-gestating adaptation of Burroughs’ beloved novel, should perhaps be characterized as a work of nostalgia for a bygone nostalgia. (Among its scenarists is novelist Michael Chabon, who also did a draft of Spier-Man 2, and who’s made the complication of nostalgia and renovation of ostensibly outmoded fantasy genres into the foundation of a busy career.)
The film’s eponymous hero (Taylor Kitsch, remarkably good at working the film’s very particular tone and interacting with its sprawling special effects) is a prospector and Confederate veteran, both a fierce warrior and fiercely individualistic—a good old boy with a bad attitude. “I don’t fight for anyone,” he defiantly declares, which of course tips us off to the fact that this is going to be the story of a guy who finds something to fight for. The twist is that Carter needs to travel to another planet to do so, one where the racial and territorial squabbles bear a close resemblance to those of the world Carter left behind, and whose enviro-political crises mirror resemble those of our current era. (The film’s director is Andrew Stanton, who previously used the fantastic to speak to apocalyptic anxieties in WALL-E.)
Life on Mars—known by locals as Barsoom—is both technologically advanced and diplomatically deficient. Some Martians look like us (in fact, some of them look like Ciarán Hinds and Mark Strong), some look like giant frogs with four arms (with the voices of Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton). There are several tribes and nobody’s getting along very well with anybody else, primarily because the resources needed to sustain life on Mars are dwindling. Being a natural outsider, Carter finds himself in league with other outsiders, chief among them Sola (Morton), the rebellious daughter of one of the froggy people’s most revered fighters (Dafoe), and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Princess of Helium, a feisty fox being forced into marriage with Sab Than (Dominic West), Prince of Zodanga, and an obvious prick. Sab Than’s cut a deal with some shadowy figures with unfathomable powers who, like the capricious gods of antiquity, live only to quietly manipulate the fates of hapless mortals. A robust embodiment of American ambition, Carter catches on to the grand plan and has none of it. His drive to thwart the shadow-people’s designs is about one-part spite, one-part triumph of the free will over mysterious forces of determinism.
But Carter’s other, less explicit motivation is his burgeoning desire to become, as the film’s closing revision of its title tells us, John Carter of Mars. Rather than pining for return to the familiarity of Earthly existence, Carter, a widower, realizes he prefers this strange, brutish, arid planet, because it more closely resembles the untamed places of his past, because it lets him be unique (and endows him with superpowers unattainable on Earth), and because his capacity for domestic pleasure has been revived by romance with Dejah. There’s something pleasing—especially given that we’re watching a Disney film—about Carter’s interplanetary/interracial urges and his utterly unsentimental regard for Home. For a story grounded in nostalgia, John Carter has a nifty way of shrugging off longing for whence its hero came. And where the rest of us, like it or not, are stuck. (For the time being, at least.)