John Carter

Originally posted on on March 13, 2012

Oh, man.

You know that thing where the trailer gives away everything about a movie, to the extent that when you go see it, there’s nothing left to be surprised by?

This is not that movie.

From the beginning, Disney’s marketing for the film was low key. You can tell from the posters that there are monsters in it, and that it seems to be set in a vaguely primitive, possibly barbaric, time and place, but that’s really about it. Sure, if you’re familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the original Tarzan novels, you might  actually know that John Carter is the protagonist in his Barsoom series of pulp fiction stories that was first published in 1917.

Yes, you read that right. 1917.

As this novel is insanely old at this point, it’s understandable that it’s based on a lot of antiquated ideas about Mars put forth by Percival Lowell in 1895 (what?) where he posits that Mars was a huge desert whose inhabitants were forced to create a network of canals across the face of the planet to bring water to their last remaining farmlands. This explained the reason for the canali which Schiaparelli observed in 1877 (it’s like we’re in the TARDIS!).

Burroughs took this view of the red planet and added a kilo of Space Opera and a whole lot of Western and poof, out came A Princess of Mars, the story of Confederate cavalry man, John Carter, lost on an alien world. He wrote eleven books in the Barsoom series from 1917 to 1964, and if you’re curious to read it, they’re all available on Project Gutenberg or other sites (the copyrights for most of the books are already in the public domain).

Me, I’d rather have a hardbound copy to read, but after a visit to National Bookstore, there isn’t one available.

I’d been prompted to find the book, because I really enjoyed the movie. I’ve already watched it twice in 3D and am still eager to watch it a few more times. It’s an extremely entertaining piece of cinema that makes me feel like I’m watching something from the good old days of pulp science fiction.

What is pulp science fiction? Ever seen a Frank Frazetta painting? Barbarians, loincloths, huge cats, raging demons, voluptuous women in pasties… those are all staples of the genre. These were stories that were circulated in pulp magazines early in the century, tales of rockets and space men, before the hard science fiction writers started infusing the genre with the big words and ideas like xenomorphology or relativity. I love those stories as much as the next nerd, but the space opera had a style that was quite charming, too. You only have to look at the popularity of Star Wars to see that.

Like Star Wars, there isn’t much real “science” in this science fiction: the citizens of Helium and Zodanga both travel via delicate flying machines that float on light, the Holy Therns command some kind of fantastical energy called the 9th Ray which can power a city or disintegrate organic matter, and one can instantaneously travel interplanetary distances just by saying a few silly sounding words. There’s more fantasy here than any scientific fact. And that is what makes the story so very accessible. Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you don’t need to know String Theory to enjoy the movie.

Another thing that the film has going for it is the supporting cast. I love Dominic West in anything. The man is just awful in his roles, which is great because he’s usually the villain. I recommend you pick up both 300 and Punisher: War Zone and pay attention to his characters there. Don’t you just want to pistol whip him to death? God, he’s so great as the bad guy.

There’s also one other standout bad guy here and that’s Mark Strong, or Matai Shang of the Therns. His baddie-ness doesn’t shine quite as much though since he’s just not on screen as much as West is. James Purefoy as the captain of the Helium soldiers is also great, though somewhat underused.

Lynn Collins, who plays Dejah Thoris, a princess of Helium, is… well I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She played Silver Fox in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but this is a huge step up for her. She reminds me of Gina Carano here. Or Gina Torres. My god, just look at those arms! Collins plays the titular princess and John Carter’s love interest in the film and does a fair job of being the warrior woman to die for.

Willem Dafoe voices Tars Tarkas, the Thark king (or Jeddak in the vernacular of Barsoom). The Tharks are a green skinned race of Martians with six limbs and tusks. Burroughs based them on Native American tribes and they’re meant to be his story’s “noble savages”. Dafoe is a good choice and plays his part well.

 The only actor I really had a problem with during the 2 hours and 15 minutes was Taylor Kitsch, the guy who plays Carter himself. Philippine citizens might remember this guy as the dude who didn’t correct Letterman when he related the story of getting stopped at customs a few weeks ago. Others might remember him as Gambit. Lord knows why they chose him for this role. He feels like an asthmatic cardboard cutout. He walks around with a furrowed brow and it’s supposed to be “acting” He’s like a Vin Diesel with hair.

The consensus on Rottentomatoes is that it suffers from “uneven pacing” but I loved the way the film unfolded. It starts in the Arizona territories after the end of the civil war then proceeds through Carter’s introduction to the Martian landscape and his meeting with the Tharks. From there we get deeper into the conflict between the two factions of the “Red” people of mars, the humanoid Heliumites and Zondangans. Between then and the big, climactic battle, we get a few big battle scenes, including one where Carter faces a horde of feral Tharks, and another against a pair of giant, blind, white gorillas. At no time during the two times I watched it was I bored.

I think part of the reason it works is that director Andrew Stanton (the Pixar graduate who was responsible for Wall-E and Nemo to life) was able to find a nice balance: providing a fun kitschiness which the source material demanded, but not allowing the film to fall over the edge into a total parody.

The division between the critics on this movie are a good indication that many people will not like this movie. I feel it’s got a very specific audience that will understand and appreciate the tone of the movie, and the rest of the movie goers are going to be bored out of their skulls. I also think that the aforementioned marketing for the movie isn’t doing them any good. Those that might actually enjoy watching the film might not actually go see it because of lack of awareness. You really can’t tell what the story is about from the posters and the trailers. It’s sad, but audiences aren’t looking for surprises anymore: they want to know what it is they’re paying Php 300.00 (or whatever you all in the States are paying now) for that 3D ticket.

What really kills me is that if this movie tanks, we won’t see the other 10 books in the series made into films.

That would suck big, hoary Thark balls.

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