Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Defense of "John Carter"

“John Carter” is a very good film, not as bad as many critics have said, provided you know one thing: How To Have Fun.

To understand this essay, you have to understand where I come from and the type of viewer and reader I am. “A Princess of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Mars book—first book period (!)—and the basis for the new movie, is one of the very few things that can literally transport me back to that glorious time in my life in the late 70s halo of those immediate post-Star Wars years where I learned about science fiction. While I cannot say with certainty that the John Carter books were my first literary SF, they were among the first. I re-read “Princess” a couple of years ago and found that the tale still held sway over my imagination despite my more adult observations on the technical proficiency of ERB’s writing style. In preparation for the new movie, my SF book club agreed to read the first two novels of the series (the second being The Gods of Mars), watch the movie, and then retire to a nearby restaurant and discuss.

As to the type of reader and viewer I am, let’s just say that I thoroughly enjoy being entertained. When it comes to TV cop shows, I can enjoy “The Wire” and “CSI: Miami” for what each of them are. CSI: Miami will never win over critics the way The Wire has, but I often have more fun with Horatio Caine and company versus McNulty and his pals. I was completely engrossed by “The Dark Knight” back in 2008 but also really dug the animated “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” released the same year. For another example, I am a proud member of the Star Wars Generation, a kid when it was released. As an adult, I was jazzed to see the new movies, yet left the theater after Episode I and Episode II having to justify many aspects of those movies. Of the six Star Wars movies made, only one is great, one is very good, and the rest are all muddled together. All this is to say that, while I don’t often wear my critical hat every time a watch or read something, I am no drone for properties and characters and universes I enjoy.

Which brings me to John Carter. I read no spoilers ahead of time. The older I’ve gotten, the more I prefer to be surprised in the movie theater rather than a grainy YouTube video or geekboy script breakdown published somewhere on the web. I knew those in control of the subject matter, namely Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Disney, among others. Stanton’s work with Pixar is magnificent, Chabon’s novels and mastery of the English language are often sublime, and I love Disney stuff. That Chabon and Stanton grew up loving the Barsoom (i.e., Mars) books and were in charge of the story left me no worries that they would shepherd the film with loving detail. I trusted in them, and, frankly, they did not let me down.

But I am a different type of viewer than your average viewer. I knew the material. In fulfilling my obligation to my book club (read the first two novels), I became so engrossed in the characters and landscape of Burroughs’s imagination that I have, to date, completed the first four novels and am reading the fifth. I pulled my old issues of the 1970s-era John Carter comics published by Marvel and am re-reading them. I’ve even bought the new anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, Under the Moons of Mars, new stories inspired by Barsoom. Sure, the books are laced with wild coincidences, pulpy writing, and outlandish plot details. So? You could say the same about The Da Vinci Code and not a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, too, and I liked them. A simple story told simply isn’t bad. What I wanted most to see was Burroughs’s imagination come alive on screen. And, in that, Stanton delivered more than I could ever have hoped for.

Burroughs populated his adventures with giant four-arms green fighting men (Tharks), giant ten-legged Martian “lions” (banths), giant flying crafts that “sail” the air (Barsoomian war ships), and giant, four-armed white apes. See a trend here? Burroughs’s world is over-sized, filled with wondrous creatures, fierce and noble races, vile villains, and amazing technology. The oft-used phrase “sensawonder,” an amalgamation of “sense of wonder,” permeates the very text of Burroughs’s books and comes alive in readers’ imaginations.

And they come truly to life in the new movie. The Tharks I had always pictured to be muscle-bound hulks, but in Stanton’s hands, they are aggressive yet elegant, beautiful almost. Gollem, in The Lord of the Rings, is my standard by which I measure how computer animated characters interact with human characters. The Tharks have joined him. I love the Tharks in this film! I always pictured the white apes to be vicious brutes, and in Stanton’s interpretation, they are larger and far worse than I’d thought possible. Woola, the calot, or Martian dog, was a ten-legged beast in the books with little personality other than loyalty. On screen, Woola is a joy to watch as he is both loyal and laugh-out-loud comic relief. The flying ships are large and graceful, but can pack enough firepower to destroy whole towns. Yes, they sound like ships from Star Wars: Episode I, but who cares. There are only so many ways you can make spaceships sound. I caught the reference, and then quickly moved it aside in my mind. I was having too much dang fun.

I’m very glad that Stanton and company kept the framing device. In both the book and the movie, a fictional version of Burroughs is entrusted with a manuscript written by Carter that tells of his exploits on Mars. From there, the epic of John Carter is revealed. One of my fellows thought the film should have begun with Carter waking up on Mars. I liked the back story (and the additions Stanton made, especially the ending) and considered it to give Carter a bit more emotional resonance. Where the literary Carter is a military man nearly incapable of *not* joining a fight, the film version of Carter is a qualified fighting man, buy one for whom violence has taken a toll. That still doesn’t mean it can’t be the butt of a joke. I was laughing out loud when I watched the scenes of Carter, on Earth, being captured by the Union cavalry.

For a century, certain images from the books have been stuck in the imaginations of readers. One of the dangers that a faces a film like “John Carter” boils down to this: will the filmmakers “see” the scene like the readers have seen it. From my point of view, they nailed it. More than once in the novels, Carter fights hoards of beasts, the carcasses piling up around him. Stanton got this pitch perfect. The flying ships are exotic yet real, steampunk-inspired, yet futuristic. Helium as a city is magnificent, regal, yet lived in, as befitting a dying planet. Sure, George Lucas made his Star Wars universe “lived in,”—a quality the newer films kind of lacked—but he was probably inspired by Barsoom.

The Acting

You don’t watch Star Wars for acting lessons. Ditto the Harry Potter films, the Twilight films, or any random superhero movie. True, great acting emerges, either in certain characters (Heath Ledger’s Joker), certain scenes (the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Cedric dies), over the course of a movie/series (Sean Astin’s Sam in The Lord of the Rings), and, occasionally, in a computer-generated character (Gollem, Wall E, or Anton Ego from Ratatouille). But, like a Michael Crichton novel, you often only need to let an actor say the lines that needs saying and propel the plot forward.

That doesn’t mean that the actors cannot embody their lines with life and verve. Here, however, is the tale of a man lost, a stranger in a strange world. How would *you* feel if you woke up on another planet? For me, I never saw Taylor Kitsch in anything until I saw him as John Carter. That’s a benefit for me, for I didn’t have his Friday Nights Lights character to influence how I perceived his portrayal of Carter. Ditto for Lynn Collins, the actress who plays Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars. They were tasked—burdened?—with bringing to life and personifying a century’s worth of reader imaginations, to say nothing of the scores of young men who dreamed that *they* welded Carter’s sword and rescued Dejah themselves. And they did a good job. Neither rose above the text and overpowered the film, but they were not subsumed by it either.

Of the two characters, Dejah got an update. When you read the original novels, you will note that, while Dejah did find herself in numerous instances of peril, she wasn’t some limp-wristed damsel who did nothing but scream. She helps Carter in more than one spot, paving the way for future heroines like Princess Leia and Ripley from “Alien.” In the new movie, Dejah is still a princess, but she’s also a scientist who is researching the ninth ray, the mystical ray that, could it only be harnessed, it could even the battlefield against Helium’s enemies. Oh, and she’s a great fighter, too. Oh, and she’s beautiful. The other members of my book club rolled their eyes over the fact that all three traits were rolled into one. I, frankly, had no problem with it. I like strong women. It leveled the playing field between Carter’s supernatural strength and Dejah’s brain.

The love story worked for me. As innumerable love stories on film have done, you have two opposing personalities discovering their love for each other but go to great pains to hide it. We knew, going in, that Carter would fall for Dejah. The fun in the movie, however, was how Dejah fell for Carter. Remember the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County (stay with me, here) and how Meryl Streep’s character kept stealing glances at Clint Eastwood? Same stuff here, but, for example, through the reflection of a Martian sword. Collins had her work cut out for her seeing that generations of young boys probably got quite excited when their imaginations filled in the figure of the mostly naked princess of Mars. She had to embody this famous heroine, give her brains and brawn, but also be beautiful at the same time. Pretty as she was, she won me over with her sly smiles at Carter’s fighting prowess and her growing respect, admiration, and the fact that she saw in Carter a kindred spirit. It is through her eyes that the loves manifests itself first, and it is in her heartbroken eyes we see Carter’s initial refusal to help. She did a great job. One reviewer commented that he’d like to see a movie featuring Dejah alone. While I would not go that far, I was thoroughly impressed by Collins and thought she carried more than her share of the film.

The Changes

Readers and critics could debate all day on the merits of filming all the events from A Princess of Mars. One critic who panned the film talked of Stanton’s slavish devotion to the source material. I think there is a fine line between slavishly creating something on the screen from printed material (Watchmen) or taking inspiration from a book and creating something that is, in effect, a hybrid. Readers in 1912 traveled with Carter throughout this basic travelogue of a book, having adventures along the way. In that year, the spectacle of Mars was pretty much enough to maintain interest. In 2012, we’ve sent spaceship to Mars itself, so we know the truth. We have a more sophisticated appreciation for storytelling and, frankly, expect more and different things from a movie. Stanton and Chabon, knowing this fact, reached the only logical conclusion: incorporate the best elements of the main book, throw in a few elements from the second, and make up some new stuff to satisfy the demands of the viewing public.

All in all, they succeeded. SPOILERS start here. The villains from The Gods of Mars—the Therns—are brought into this story. These immortal beings, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) control the lives and events of mortal souls. They know the secret of the ninth ray on Mars—a source of great power—and give it to the human bad guy of the film (Dominic West’s Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga, the great rival of Dejah’s Helium) to help him rule. The Therns are shape-shifters, able to, in the blink of an eye, change form. Cool! This is not in the books, but it works here, and it enables Carter to do exactly what the first movie in a (potential) series needs to do: defeat the smaller bad guy but not the larger bad guy. Think about the end of the first Star Wars film: Vader lives, but the Death Star is destroyed. You know he’s going to bring back the big guns, but that’s in the next movie.

Teleportation. In the books, Carter uses astral projection to get to Mars. Here, in the movie, it’s a combination of that plus a technological component. His body remains here on Earth while a living, breathing copy of him emerges on Mars. This concept sets up the great epilogue, a point I’m not spoiling here. I really liked that it was a scientific means of getting Carter to Mars, and, by having to possess an actual artifact, gave Carter a nice MacGuffin to chase.

The Criticisms

Yes, I have some. Earlier I mentioned how Stanton and Chabon picked the best parts of the first two books and put them in this movie. It must have been a tremendously fun exercise, much like the fun Anthony Horowitz must have experienced when he penned the new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011). Think about it: you get to assemble what amounts to a mix tape of your favorite scenes. The one problem I have is that they may have picked too many.

Take, for example, a hallmark of Burroughs’s tales: the arena fight. I’ve forgotten how many exist in the novels, but it’s a lot. Likely the writers knew that they wanted to include one in the film and chose a rather awkward time for it. Sure, it set up the Braveheart-like visuals of Carter splattered with blue blood, but even I kind of shifted in my seat when I realized that Carter was captured yet again. But, I quickly reminded myself of the books, where Carter and his friends always get captured. Then, of course, in the film, you get the arena scene and the giant apes. Yes, I thought of Star Wars: Episode II at the start of the scene (and Spartacus and Ben Hur and Gladiator)…and quickly put it out of my mind. Arena battles are numerous in films and mythology. There are only a few ways to do them. And the way Carter did it was thrilling. Dude, he swung a giant bolder and smashed the head of a giant white ape! Yeah!

The Voice of Barsoom. In the books, Carter learns the one language of Mars the old fashioned way: by hearing it and, bit by bit, understanding it. In the movie, there is a magical liquid that the Tharks give their young and that one of the Tharkian women in charge of Carter gives the Earthman. Lo and behold, he now speaks their language. It’s a simple and straightforward way to get all the characters speaking the same language in the blink of a scene, but it’s a little eye rolling.

There are other minor criticisms, but I’d be throwing pebbles at a boulder. Who cares, really? I had a blast with the film.


If I had to sum up my thoughts into one word, it might be “thankfulness.” I’m thankful that Stanton, Chabon, and everyone involved were devoted to making a fun, entertaining, fun, faithful, fun, and exciting movie experience. I’m thankful that they played it straight with their film, not like the cheesy Flash Gordon movie of 1980. I’m thankful that they reminded us that jaded, post-modern takes on historical or old ideas need not be the only way to update old material. I’m thankful that Stanton hired Michael Giacchino who composed a superb soundtrack that evoked not only the thrilling soundtracks of Hollywood’s days gone by with the bombast of fight scenes, but also the ethereal, otherworldly music that shines and yet lovingly caresses the actors on screen during the quieter moments. (I’m thinking of that final episode of “Lost” and the openings of “Star Trek” and “Up” where his music nearly single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. That gravitas is present here, too.) I’m thankful for Disney who put up the money to make a giant pet project that millions of readers and viewers adore, no matter the final financial outcome. I’m thankful that movies like this are still being made, movies that entertain and thrill with no other ulterior motive than that. I’m thankful that there are moments in this movie where I wanted to stand up and cheer, where chills coursed over my arms, where my jaw dropped at the sheer size of the spectacle before me, and whose closing scene had me grinning like the eleven year old that I still am when it comes to this material.

I loved this movie for what it is: the best dang movie experienced I’ve seen in a long, long time. There are formidable movies that have planted their flags and laid claim to moments in my life, from childhood to adulthood: Star Wars, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Amadeus, Back to the Future, Die Hard, Batman (1989), Dead Poet’s Society, When Harry Met Sally, The Fellowship of the Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Return of the King, Ratatouille, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. John Carter of Mars has landed with this company.

I loved this movie and I want to return to this universe. If, however, a sequel is never made, I will still cherish this film, these books, and this universe. If a movie sequel is never made, I implore Chabon and Stanton to write the novel. I want to know the next chapter in this new yet familiar story. It’s a long shot in these immediate days after the premiere, but there exists hope, and hope, according to John Carter, is enough.


Lowiczanka said...

I have been a big Burroughs fan since the 1970's and have waited all this time for a film to be made.
And I love it !!!
I was pleasantly surprised that I liked Taylor Kitsch in the role. It was his voice that won me over (I imagined someone like Adrian Paul as the Warlord of Mars). And, despite the change in the dynamic of the love story between Carter and the incomparable Dejah Thoris, I thought the film came close to perfection.
read more in my blog:

mybillcrider said...

Great post, Scott. I loved the movie.

Scott D. Parker said...

Lowiczanka - Not sure how it came to pass that, in 2012, I went to see a movie based on a book I loved as a kid and thoroughly loved opposed to 1999 when I went to see a *new* movie based on films I loved as a kid...and was disappointed. Hmmm...

Bill - I've already asked my dad "Hey, you wanna see the movie?" as a means of me seeing it again.

steve davidson said...

I've read the series of books a number of times after first discovering them in the 60's.

I was thoroughly disappointed with this film.

Yes, the spectacle was nice and there was one moment (the fight against the Warhoons) the raised the spirit of the literary John Carter, but the changes and add-ons to the story completely destroyed what I believe to be the written version's greatest traits: enigmas and the great unknown. We don't know who or what Carter is (he doesn't know himself) and can therefore take to Barsoom completely while taking the reader along for that ride. Giving him earthly concerns, hobbling him with his family tragedy and turning him into a whiney b***h who only cares about gold...that's not John Carter.
You praise the 'language liquid' - I'd much rather have seen the interplanetary Thern BS excised and the time devoted to Carter learning about green Martian culture from Sola, better exposition of her back story (that explains so much and clues us in to why Carter's personality is able to establish a friendship with Tarkas - indeed the entire theme of courage, goodness, honor and loyalty working to change an entire world, a theme that was comlpetely subsumed under 9th ray weapon BS; Dejah Thoris and the people of Helium as well (and what happened to 'greater' and 'lesser' Helium?) - the most influential city-state on Barsoom BECAUSE it is the most enlightened city-state on Barsoom, reduced to sniveling cowards, willing to allow their most beloved citizen to be ransomed to Zodanga for peace? The Heliumites I know would have fought to the death rather than suffer that stain on their honor.
These 'changes' compeltely eviscerate the real themes of Burrough's work and turn this movie into yet another pointless exercise of putting eye candy up on the screen. Thank goodness that it did so poorly that it is unlikely we'll ever see any sequels.

Unknown said...

A well thought-out review of a fun movie. I have to concur on almost all of it. My only issue was that I felt that Dominic West was wasted. The character of Sab Than left him little room to explore. I wanted to see him chewing up the scenes he was in.

Tom Roberts said...

Films are about eliciting an emotion, whether it be uplifting, heart wrenching, shocking or educating. Too often their merit is solely based upon the box office draw.

Shindler's Listwas an extraordinary film pulling forth every emotion one can feel throughout its course, but do I want to see it again and again? No. And yet I watch It's a Wonderful Life every holiday season and look forward to its tear-jerking sequences.

Burroughs once commented, (paraphrasing): "I have no illusions about the literary merits of my writing," also adding "Entertainment is the primary purpose of fiction."

This entertainment factor should never be overlooked or under-judged. That is the hook.

In the final analysis it is the emotional benefit of the viewer, touched by passages in a film, not the critic or the studio (who are both simply cashing a check) that judge the "success" of a movie.

Does this not hold true for books as well as film? Why read or see it again if you know the outcome? Because of the emotion drawn forth.

Tom Roberts
Illustrator and Publisher
Black Dog Books