March 15, 2012

John Carter of Mars: a Retrospective

History repeats itself.  In 1912, All-Story Magazine ran a serial entitled Under the Moons of Mars by a certain Norman Bean. 

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Norman Bean was the pen name of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was so unsure of his reception, and afraid his career would suffer from negative criticism of something so outlandishly different, that he felt he had to adopt this punning nom de plume – ‘normal bean,’ that is, ‘there’s nothing wrong with my head.’

Under the Moons of Mars was to be republished, with a missing chapter that added depth and sympathy to the story (Sola Tells Her Story), in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, and under Burroughs’ real name.  And science fiction, just beginning to totter onto its feet  like a new-hatched Thark, got a fire lit under its – well, that burns to this day.

Fast forward to 2012, and Disney did the exact same thing.  In 2007, after several aborted attempts to produce a movie based on the novel, Disney acquired the film rights.  This year, on the centennial of the original story’s publication, it was finally released.

As John Carter.  No Mars.  No Princess

Not even a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the debt that the entire Star Wars saga, or Flash Gordon, or Avatar, or any number of other popular franchises based on the pulps, owe it.  Of course we fans were going to watch it – but how many moviegoers nowadays have read anything by ERB? And so once again, a work that could be a classic gets dismissed by normal beans.  Disney should pay us fans for identifying the good points of this movie and telling the world how much fun we had with it!

Trust your inner kid.  He, or she, knows what good stuff is. This is what my inner kid liked from the movie:

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Dejah Thoris
Um, wait, maybe it’s not exactly my inner kid that likes this character so much … But kidding aside, the movie not only takes the character of Dejah Thoris quite faithfully from the book – the royal daughter of Helium’s jeddak (emperor), and a scientist – it really plays up on her being a strong-willed, noble-minded lady, willing to sacrifice all for her people.  And she kicks ass (which she does in the books, but it’s overshadowed by ERB’s overuse of the damsel in distress plot). 

I really liked that the creative team gave her her own distinctive sword-fighting style.  I’d even say that, just as Peter Jackson improved the roles of Merry and Pippin in the LOTR movies, JCM director Andrew Stanton improved and updated the role of Dejah Thoris very nicely.   

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The Green Men
Thanks to the advances in CGI, it was finally possible to depict ERB’s vision of the green men – one of the most iconic denizens of his fantasy Mars – as he described them.  They tower over the humans, their four arms are beautifully coordinated, and the animators outdid themselves I think in making both pairs look useful. 

I was hoping the movie would do more with Green Man culture, though: that the name Dotar Sojat come from the first two Tharks John Carter kills, as in the books, that they deliberately bred all the tenderer emotions out of themselves, and how much of a break with tradition it was for Tars Tarkas to even know Sola was his daughter, much less treat her differently because of it.  I personally found the latter two elements underplayed in the movie.

That said, the hatchery scene was fantastic – the four-armed green tykes were hilariously cute, and it did reveal a lot about the green men when Tars Tarkas ordered the unhatched eggs destroyed.

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The Flyers
I’ll have to say I was rather put off at first by the first sight of the flyers – there was no indication they were buoyed up by tanks, like the dirigibles ERB based them on, and ERB explicitly described them as propelled by rotors, again something the movie departed from.  But. 

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The flyers did have this wonderful steampunk/Final Fantasy vibe to them.  And, another plus for me, the design looks suitably alien – reinforcing the idea that all this action isn’t happening on Earth.  Seeing them in flight gave me the same feeling I had when I first saw Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder skimming across Tatooine back in 1977, and of course the speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi. 

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The Architecture
I really have to give kudos to the production designers for their interpretation of Barsoomian architecture and architectural details.  The dead cities blended really well into the rocky desert environments, and the echoes of Persepolis and what looked like Egyptian and Khmer touches gave the cities a good feeling of antiquity.  The romantic theme of lost cities was one that ERB would play on repeatedly in his novels, as it was also around this time that archaeologists were beginning to unearth the majestic ruins of Asia and Mesoamerica.

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Therns on Earth
Acquaintances of mine will probably not be surprised that I like this departure from the ERB canon, since I’ve always been one of those who favored a Martian link to ancient Earth as a story idea.  It’s much more interesting than the very deus ex machina way that Carter gets transported to Mars and back in the books, and provides a hook for possible sequels and spinoffs. Since I get high on red dust, more Barsoom = more better!

I also like the depiction of the Therns as a sinister order possessing hyper-advanced disguising technology, as it  adds to the potential of using them in more stories.  On the downside, though, I wonder now how they’ll work in the Black Pirates of Dor, the Sea of Korus, and the end of the Issus cult.  While Issus is worshipped by all Barsoomians in the books, in the movie it’s made to seem that only the greens do, while the reds don’t.

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Thoats and Apes and Calots!
Again, kudos to the artists and animators for the great creature designs.  I specially liked the twist on the white apes, making them blind, and, IIRC, even bigger than in the books. The thoats were done exactly as described in the books, to my great surprise and pleasure.

However: I think Woola was clumsily handled.  Make no mistake – the movie faithfully depicts the calot as the fastest runner on Mars, as ERB describes it.  As one who’s read the books, I knew that; but my wife had to ask me about Woola’s running.  They should’ve had Sola or Sarkoja warn Carter not to try running away from ‘the fastest creature on Barsoom’ or something like that to establish the expectation of Woola’s abilities.

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Harness and Weapons
I was wondering how the movie team would interpret ERB’s concept of the Barsoomian harness.  The depiction of Martian costume in the 1970s Marvel adaptation was unsatisfying, as it showed the male characters solely in g-strings and shoulder cross-belts, and the women in brass bikinis; again, kudos to the Disney artists for breaking out of that box, and yet still getting the feel right.  The armor even looks plausibly practical, given that the Martians have firearms but also fight with rather heavy-looking blades: there’s protection for shoulders and the chest, bracers for parrying, and helmets, but the whole optimized for agile movement.

The swords though are again quite a departure from Burroughs’ descriptions – which however were inconsistent.  In some books he would describe the Barsoomian longsword as being like a saber, with a slim curved blade, and in others ‘long and with a needle point’ which to my mind conjured images of a rapier.  Perhaps influenced by 300, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, LOTR and other recent sword films, Disney’s designers made the swords in JCM look like long versions of the Spartan kopis crossbred with Southeast Asian blade and hilt designs. 

Summary
I found John Carter of Mars, despite its departures from the books, to be a fun and solidly worthy adaptation.  The story was simple, as pulp stories should be, with good old-fashioned, two-fisted heroes, modern heroines (Sola and Dejah Thoris both), and a satisfying conclusion.  Yes, they could’ve stuck closer to the original story, but I’m a realist: Hollywood is run by corporations, and corporations will always do creation-by-committee.

But just as the romance of the books is ERB’s ability to enmesh us in his visualization of an alien world and its civilizations, so John Carter the movie entrances with its look, bringing back the sense of wonder that was the whole point of the series.

Here’s hoping this will inspire a revival of interest in the sword and planet genre.  Kaor! 

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