Wednesday, 14 March 2012

John Carter of Mars


If you don’t want spoilers, or don’t want to read my rambling about movies, skip it.  Because this post is going to contain spoilers.  And it is going to ramble.  You have been warned!



















I had been burned by so many bad Batman films that, when Batman Begins hit the theatre, I decided to wait for the DVD.  It wasn’t until the context of Dark Knight that I really began to kick myself for that decision.  I simply wasn’t ready to accept another Batman film at the time for what it was.

Leaping on the bandwagon for John Carter seems to consist of jumping upon it with both feet and the benefits of Mars’ reduced gravity to kick it in the guts.  I won’t be doing that here.  Overall, I was pleased by John Carter.  I will have a few complaints, though, so bear with me.

My first impression is that we are treated to a full story, which is thankfully becoming more common again as time goes on, thanks in large part (I think) to the success of film projects like Lord of the Rings.  A full story is appreciated from this quarter, at least.  I think those in the “too much exposition” crowd have become used to the Hollywood shorthand-instead-of-story, and there is still a very active trade in this sort of film making.

John Carter does suffer a bit from two current Hollywood trends:  (1) everything must be bigger and badder, and (2) the reluctant hero.  

As to the second, John Carter as Edgar Rice Burroughs envisioned him is anything but a reluctant hero.  I understand the attraction of a Bilbo or a Frodo, who has adventure thrust on them without necessarily seeking it, but the ERB heroes tend to be more empowered than that.  This film shifts empowerment to Deja Thoris in a way that works, but I feel that the same could have been accomplished without making John Carter reluctant to get involved.

As to the first, there is actually very little of it in John Carter.  The white apes are larger than I remembered them from the novels, but not by much, while the banths seemed smaller.  Of course, the banths are dead, while the white apes are alive when introduced.

What to do with the therns?  In the original work, they were the priesthood of Barsoom, feeding off the dying carcass of the planet like yellow-wigged parasites.  The relationship between the therns and John Carter’s arrival on Barsoom isn’t from the novels, but it works as an extrapolation…including the idea that the therns are preparing their control of Jassoon to feed off when Barsoom is at last truly a dead world.  They are definitely “bigger and badder” than they were in the novels, where the greatest resistance to their overthrow is social and political.

Exactly what motivates the therns in this movie is unclear, and that is an unfortunate flaw.  But I do like the idea of the therns as a series enemy, and it seems likely that we shall see them again in Gods of Mars.  I did like the use of the therns to make the frame story from the novel (involving Edgar Rice Burroughs being made the guardian of John Carter’s remains) a larger part of the overall story.  In a continuing film series, the therns could also then be tied into the invasion from Jupiter that marks ERB’s last work on the John Carter series, and could be tied as well into a series about ERB’s moon adventures.

The green Barsoomians (the Tharks and Warhoon) are very well realized in this film.  The locking of tusks in challenge was well done.  The four arms are used with body language that pairs arm motions both as above-and-below sets, and right-and-left sets, depending upon context.   Likewise, the white apes, the calot (Woola) and the thoats.  Willem Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, is nigh perfect.

I had expected to dislike the red Barsoomians, because they looked rather like normal Earth-types on the trailers.  However, when viewing the film, there is a definite red cast to their skin and their blood is as blue as that of the green Barsoomians.  I would have liked to have mention of their being oviparous in the film, including perhaps sight of the egg that would hatch into Cathoris.  I found the red Barsoomians well cast, with special note to Deja Thoris and Kantos Kan, who are, of course, important to the series as a whole.  Kantos Kan seems to be a model ERB hero in this film, demonstrating a sense of humour, a willingness to accept whatever comes, and a clear head every time he is on screen.

(Note:  There is a lot more skin in the ERB novels – both male and female – than in the film.  If the film followed the Martian clothing fashions of ERB, it would have received an R rating for sure!  There is also a good bit of gender stereotyping and gender role inequality in the novels that is quietly removed from the film, where de-sexualized female warriors stand side-by-side with de-sexualized male warriors.  Not so the original novels, which are, frankly, overtly sexist by modern standards.  The vast majority of ERB’s work dealt with relations between men and women from a very sexist viewpoint, and the unnaturalness of clothing was also a common theme.)

The action was good, particularly the scene where John Carter slaughters a great mound of the Warhoon.  The scene brought to mind Robert E. Howard’s Conan, as a direct literary descendent of the Edgar Rice Burroughs heroes (REH’s novel Amulric is very much a cross between John Carter and ERB’s Pellucidar novels).  The scene where John Carter hides by leaping up to a ledge area was reminiscent of ERB’s other great hero, Tarzan of the Apes.

There are people who mistakenly believe John Carter to rip off Star Wars, with its jed, banths, and padwars, but ERB’s novel, A Princess of Mars, was first published in 1917.  Star Wars is derivative of John Carter, not the other way around.  I applaud Disney for not changing things so that the link between ERB’s Barsoom novels and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise becomes obscured.  Here’s a hint:  If the John Carter series continues, we may yet encounter a sith!

In the original novels, John Carter was immortal, having been apparently the same age as long as he could remember, with a memory that stretched back centuries.  The quest for immortality was of interest to ERB (he made Tarzan immortal twice), probably stemming from Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1891 novel, Phra the Phoenician

In the film, “Uncle Jack” remembers dandling a then young-adult “Ned” Burroughs on his knee (although John Carter seems to be less than 20 years older than Edgar), and he spends 10 years trying to find a way back to Mars without seeming to age in doing so.  Likewise, he appears to be the same age when he had a family in Virginia.  So there are tantalizing hints that the film John Carter may be as immortal as the novel John Carter.

Overall, I found that John Carter stayed true to the spirit of ERB’s Barsoom, even if it did not cleave to the sexist stereotypes of the era it was written in.  The film extrapolates well from the novel series, and sets up the therns well for a sequel (presumably Gods of Mars) wherein we will see John Carter as a truer ERB-type hero, committed to action from the first frame of the movie.

The visuals were very impressive, particularly the CGI work on the Tharks, Warhoon, and other Martian creatures.  The appearance changes of the Therns were very effective.  The screenplay was obviously written by folks who not only knew the original works, but who loved them.  There is quite a bit of “What can we extrapolate from this?” but very little of “Let’s make this, but make it BIGGER, BETTER, and DIFFERENT!!!!” that damages so many film translations. 

I felt that John Carter was worthy of both the time and cost to see it on the big screen.  Contrast this to the Lord of the Rings films, each of which I needed to see twice – once to grit my teeth and grimace through what had been done to the novels, and a second time to watch it for what it was, knowing how it was changed.

I give it a solid 7 out of 10, and would be more than happy to see Gods of Mars if and when it comes out.  I would love a Tarzan, Pellucidar, or Carson of Venus series that was as true to its source material, while being updated to modern sensibilities (just, please, don’t make Tarzan a reluctant hero!).

The Edgar Rice Burroughs novels intertwine in ways that would make these potentially all one big franchise – Tarzan, after all, went to Pellucidar, and there may be hints in Tarzan: The Lost Adventure (finished by Joe Lansdale) that the cave led not again to Pellucidar, but would allow John Carter-like transit to Barsoom.  Could what T:TLA describes as a praying mantis-like creature from Pellucidar actually have been a green Barsoomian from Mars?  Based on the way other ERB novels refer to each other, I believe that might have been what ERB had been planning.  Tarzan would have been the third earthman ERB had sent to Mars.

I feel that this movie is destined to be considered a classic of the genre in years to come.  John Carter isn’t a perfect film by any means.  Neither is Batman Begins.  But, when Gods of Mars hits the big screen, I am guessing that a few people will be kicking themselves for not having seen John Carter in the theatre when they had the chance.  This is a very enjoyable film for what it is.

6 comments:

  1. I pretty much agree with all of your points. I think the casting of John Carter was actually the weakest part of the film, and even he wasn't that bad. Unfortunately, we are unlike to see a sequel due to how much money this one lost.

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    1. A cheaper John Carter would have been quite successful, given the box office of this film (which was actually not so bad). It is only the incredible cost that screwed it over.

      If Disney produces a sequel, and actually does a decent job of advertising it this time, there would be a real potential to recover losses from the first film, as well as selling video game rights. By doing a trilogy, they could produce the next two movies more cheaply that the first, they could bring in a successful franchise overall.

      I still have some hope for a sequel.

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    2. I agree that there was no need to spend so much, though the special effects were good.

      If you're curious, here were my thoughts:

      http://untimately.blogspot.com/2012/03/john-carter.html

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  2. The problem with "John Carter" is that the nit-picky details are irrelevant since Disney killed the goose in its mishandling of marketing (and even the title of the film). Alas.

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    1. Too true. One can live in hope, however.

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