Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

I have been a long time fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Tales, and I don't mind telling you that I eagerly awaited this film. I saw it Saturday, and will go out on a limb and say it was pretty awesome.

Now, it is not completely "canon" but is very true to the spirit of the original stories. I feel that many of the liberties taken were done so to clear up areas that Burroughs neglected to explain, primarily regarding how John Carter was able to traverse the worlds. Initially, yes, Carter was transported to Barsoom/Mars by a freak accident, but later in the series he "tells" Burroughs (the fictional nephew of Carter) that he has figured out a way to traverse at will. Other liberties add some flavour to the story and I believe enhance for the most part.

So, the first John Carter story was A Princess of Mars in which Confederate Calvary Captain turned prospector, John Carter, is killed by Apache warriors and dies in a mysterious cave. He awakes on Barsoom, is rescued by the Tharks, and then saves Dejah Thoris and ultimately Barsoom itself. The story has a great deal of exposition, and likely would not translate to film easily, much like Dune. To avoid this problem the filmmakers decided to take the basic origin story, ignore the climax of the book, and add the future arch enemy of John Carter a "book" early, that being the Holy Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong, Sinestro from Green Lantern).

A part that bothered me a bit, but was not poorly handled, was adding a bit of the anti-hero to Carter. In my mind, and likely in Burroughs', Carter is Percival. These stories are high chivalry. Creating a character who is sick of war and unwilling to take a side is initially off-putting. John Carter is the Eternal Champion; an immortal who has fought through all of the ages of man, and is the epitome of Lawful Good. When he appears a bit sullen and initially unwilling to take up Dejah Thoris' cause I began to feel a bit hurt. Frankly, I am sick of the anti-hero, and feared they were going to make Carter into Wolverine or The Punisher. Fortunately they come around rather quickly and give his unwillingness a story, as well as a resolution. This, fortunately, was my main problem with the film and did not detract too much from my enjoyment.

Now for the good, and there is a lot of it. There is a lot of action, and a lot of humor. Carter's faithful calot, Woola, is delightfully cute and extremely dog-like without being annoying. I smiled every time he appeared, but not in a sickeningly sweet way. Carter's Thark "mother," Sola, also gets a bit more play than in the initial book. If I remember correctly she gets a bigger part in Swords of Mars, but I may be mistaken. Sola is a caring female, quite unfit for life among the cruel Tharks, and in both stories she is mistreated. The movie goes farther than Burroughs in the punishment she receives, which while sad also strikes me as more accurate to how the Green Men would behave. They make a great deal of Carter's jumping ability, something that is occasionally forgotten in the books, and a great many scenes are reminiscent of the famous Frank Frazetta painting below:

Another excellent addition is the use of female warriors. Burroughs tended to have women as damsels in distress or femme fatales, but he was essentially writing Arthurian stories. Now we have women fighting alongside the men of Helium, and a Dejah Thoris who is not just a princess, but a scientist and warrior in her own right. This is sensible as when you are constantly at war it is best to go the Israeli route and train every citizen to fight regardless of gender. Also, it should endear the stories more to modern sensibilities. Remember, this story was written in 1912. There was no Wonder Woman or Red Sonja yet.

I guess I should mention some of the actors by this point. Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights and Gambit from the Wolverine film is pretty impressive John Carter. Lynn Collins from True Blood plays Dejah Thoris nicely for the revamped character. Willem Dafoe voices the Thark Jeddak Tars Tarkas, and Thomas Hayden Church voices his rival, Tal Hajus. Look out for Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as Colonel Powell.

If you are a fan of John Carter, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. Unlike those who waited for Spider-Man and Fantastic Four films and were a bit let down in the final product, this is more comparable to Iron Man in execution. You have to make changes to go to film, and sometimes you have to update things to appeal to the current audience, but sticking to the spirit of the piece will make things work. I believe John Carter was able to keep to the spirit of the Burroughs creation, and highly recommend it.


Dan O. said...

Despite occasional moments of silliness, the old-fashioned sense of adventure and brilliantly rendered aliens elevate this above other derivative big-budget sci-fi fare. I still wished that Kitsch did a lot better in this lead role but he was only there for eye-candy really. Good review. What also stinks is that this flick probably won’t make back any of its 250 million dollar budget. Give my review a look when you can.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Yeah, Kitsch looked like the Michael Whelan version John Carter, but actually the whole Batman voice was a bit bothersome. I definitely recommend the books to you. They are pretty short (maybe 120pp on average) and since they are in the public domain, you can find them for free (try Project Gutenberg for sure).

Anonymous said...

I loved John Carter (of Mars) as well. It was fantastically true to the spirit of the books, and the storytelling alterations worked for the most part. Too bad it's the current whipping boy for dull, unimaginative critics.

James Chatterton

Darius Whiteplume said...

I don't pay much attention to movie press, but have read it is labeled a flop. I think it is a hard sell up front. Women who are familiar with Burroughs might not be so inclined to see it, as women were mostly window dressing in his books (Tarzan included I assume). I was put off a bit by the super-weapon (which I neglected to mention), but you sort of need that sort of thing, particularly if your arch-nemesis is meant to survive. James Bond is meant to kill the bad guy and save the world. The Joker is supposed to escape, so Batman must foil his evil plan. That is the climax. Matai Shang is a threat in many of the books, if I remember correctly, so he has to live. That is the biggest problem with comic book movies. They think they have to kill the bad guy.

Nausicaa said...

In my mind, and likely in Burroughs', Carter is Percival. These stories are high chivalry. Creating a character who is sick of war and unwilling to take a side is initially off-putting. John Carter is the Eternal Champion; an immortal who has fought through all of the ages of man, and is the epitome of Lawful Good. When he appears a bit sullen and initially unwilling to take up Dejah Thoris' cause I began to feel a bit hurt.

Perhaps so, but then again, the delineation between the archetypal hero and anti-hero is not ever that clear. Especially when it comes to chivalry. Percival is unmistakably mortal at heart. The quest for the Grail, by testing the knights of the roundtable and questioning the representations of the hero and anti-hero, engages in a collective search for spiritual identity and re-examination of the idea of righteousness. (A very contemporary issue for out times—need I mention Iraq?) The figure of John Carter emerging from his own wasteland (a former American Civil War Confederate) is in that, indeed, highly Percivalian (Whom does the grail serve?), and while our hero did jump (quite literally so), in a very chivalrous way, to the rescue of the princess in distress, it is only fitting that he should be cautious about the politics or Mars, and/or the princess own agenda, about which he knows next to nothing.

T. Roger Thomas said...

The ads for John Carter haven't convinced me that I would enjoy watching this movie.

Based on your review I might give it a look.

Darius Whiteplume said...

The trailers did little for me as well. I wanted to see it because I am a huge John Carter fan, and even liked the cheesy SciFi movie "A Princess of Mars" -- If you do see it, I hope you enjoy it :-)

Darius Whiteplume said...

Certainly a hero can question his motives and those of others, but both Carter and Percival are far from anti-heroes. I agree that Carter had no reason to immediately believe Dejah Thoris' motives were pure, and at this point had more attachment to Sola. If I remember the books correctly, Carter was immediately taken by Dejah Thoris, which is a bit anachronistic these days, but his sense of honor was in place when he struck down his first Thark to defend her (this is an iconic scene in Burroughs' writing, but a tad glossed over in the film).

Ultimately, my fear was that Carter would be made in the form of The Man with No Name or Han Solo. Good, but overly mercenary, which are not traits that keep in the spirit of the character. Of course, Carter was an acknowledged inspiration for both Conan and Elric, so a bit of brooding and distrust may be natural in the modernization of the character.

StephenB said...

I had my reservations as well, and went to see it with two people who had never heard of John Carter of Mars. All three of us loved it... I really hope it does well enough for a sequel. So far it's sitting at around 110 million worldwide gross, which isn't too shabby despite the best efforts of Disney's marketing department to sink it with an unfocused ad campaign.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I think it likely will have a sequel. I mean, it was not a bomb like Godzilla. Maybe they will realize how poorly they marketed the thing, and frankly "John Carter" is a shit title, unless it is followed by "Warlord of Mars." I bet the sequel and perhaps third installment are already in development, just because that is how Hollywood works these days. Certainly they did not wait for Iron Man, as #2 was right on its heels. Disney has deep pockets too.

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