John Carter USA 2012
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Playing at UK cinemas now
Warning: To tackle this film properly, because the
subject matter really means a lot to me, there are
going to be a few minor spoilers in this one.
Hmmm... this is going to be a more problematic review to write than I thought it would. You see, I’ve been reading John Carter stories in one form or another since my teens, I know the character well and am not really prepared to accept any stumbling, bumbling deviations from that character and I can tell you now, this movie really does take some liberties, not just with the story but also with the basic characterisation of John Carter... but I’ll get to that soon enough.
But that’s not the reason this is going to be a hard review to write... heavy criticism is a lot easier to fall back on than what I have to take into account here.
It’s problematic for me because, frankly, I was expecting to really hate this movie. Even the littlest deviations I’d picked up on from accidentally reading a few lines about the film here and there was literally leaving me enraged and spitting blood and bile in the direction of Hollywood in general... but the funny thing is, that even though there are some real basic problems with the kind of attention to the broad strokes that the movie really needed to get into play... after seeing this film last night, I was surprised to find that... I really didn’t hate it.
It’s curious, but many of the decisions made which deviate from the original source material don’t leave too much of an unwelcome mark on proceedings and, for everything the director or producers or writers have got wrong about their new John Carter movie (including the stupid title which means nothing to anyone unless you already know the legend who is John Carter... what a stupid title to put the movie out under. No wonder people are staying away!), there’s also something that this production has really got right.
Visually, the film is stunning... the director obviously does have a love and respect for the original material* (that helps) and you can see it because the production has really paid attention to the look of a lot of those old paintings from the 1970s when John Carter was making a bit of a comeback in popular culture. If you know the original material I’m talking about, just look at an image of a thark riding a thoat from the new movie and you’ll see how well they’ve nailed it. Okay, so the Martian sand isn’t as red as it could be and neither, really, is the skin of the red men of Mars... but a lot of the visual reference from the history of the character since his first appearance in Under The Moons Of Mars in the pulp magazines (and subsequently changed for the first hardback printing of this story to A Princess Of Mars) has been expertly mined and referenced throughout this film... especially the stuff from that “hot” period in the mid to late seventies methinks.
So okay... the film is well directed, well edited, well performed (I don’t believe that the problems I had with the title character in any way stem from the performance of the lead actor Taylor Kitsch) and the special effects and art direction are all simply marvellous. I had a few issues which were pretty basic to the tone of John Carter and I’ll tell you what those are right now.
In the original novel, John Carter is chased into a cave and left to die, which frightens the Indians as it is a cave to be feared in their culture. He is just laying there when he can bizarrely hear and feel the red planet of Mars calling to him. Some kind of astral chord in him snaps and he suddenly finds he’s been transported across the gulf of space to Mars (known to the local inhabitants as Barsoom) and there’s no explanation given other than that. You might, at first, think as a reader that Carter has died and when you find he hasn’t, due to his constant book-to-book communications with his nephew Edgar Rice Burrough’s (who is a character in his own books in the John Carter series), you might find yourself uncomfortable with the lack of a proper scientific explanation for his journeys both to and from Barsoom as the series progresses... but once you’ve gotten used to the idea that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth. Horatio...” then you’d probably, like I did when I was a teenager devouring these stories, find the magical ambiguity of Carter’s journeys to hold a certain amount of charm.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie has gutlessly taken the decision to give a “scientifiction” explanation for the character’s “Barsoomian summons”. It’s also a shame because the people who live on Mars in the books just don’t have that technology and they’ve brought in some of the elements of the second book, The Gods Of Mars, into the mix and tied it in with this misplaced technology. The film is also, therefore, filled with laser-gun like technology when, seriously, all it needed were the radium pistols and shell weaponry from the books... especially when the Martian artillery is so terrifying. One of the things that still sticks in my mind from the books was the fact that, when you were shot in a night battle and a bullet lodged in you, you would only have a limited amount of hours to get that shell out of you because they exploded in sunlight. That means, not only will you be in serious trouble if you’re around when the sun comes up... you also can’t have a surgeon operating on you at night with the aid of any artificial light whatsoever. They would need to be operating on you in the pitch black, if they could, or risk not only losing a patient, but also a limb or two of their own.
Asides from the liberties taken with the story, a major problem is the character of John Carter. A gentleman of virginia in the US Cavalry, he goes to rescue his friends who have been captured and are being tortured by Apache Indians, who do unspeakable things to their prisoners (prisoners who would be better off dead). Think of the scene in the Firefly movie Serenity, when the guy at the start trying to hitch a lift with Captain Mal and the gang gets taken by reivers and Mal puts a bullet in him out of kindness. That’s pure John Carter right there. Now the movie version of John Carter is an ex-cavalryman and rather than being the noble gentleman portrayed in the books, in the movie they’ve turned him into a bit of a treasure-hunting rogue who’s out for himself unless he can see you’re really in trouble. Nothing wrong with that... good strong lead and Taylor Kitsch** does it very well... but it’s just not John Carter. Which is a shame really because he seriously looks the dead spitting image of John Carter. The visual faithfulness to the source is extremely potent on this movie.
Also, he’s not going on about Deja Thoris being the most beautiful woman of two worlds and the love of his life all through the movie... whereas in the books that’s all he talks about when he’s not describing the action of a scene. Everything is done for his love of Dejah Thoris, ever since he first lays eyes on her when they are both slaves and she ignores his advances due to each other’s unfamiliarity with cultural traits (an attitude which was nicely worked into the movie version of At The Earth’s Core, another Edgar Rice Burroughs creation and the first in his Pellucidar series)... he certainly wouldn’t treat her with the casual attitude he displays in some of the scenes in this movie... throwing her off her thoat etc (in Star Wars, George Lucas called thoats Banthas). He would rather lay down his life at her feet.
So that noble, bordering on submissive, side of the character is gone from the movie and instead we have an updated version of the character which is perhaps more identifiable to kids these days... but not necessarily as good a role model.
Also, there’s no way his opponents in the movie would last very long against him in the combat scenes if they’d have gone with the books once again. John Carter is known as the greatest swordsman of two worlds and, frankly, in the books which are mostly written in first person prose, he doesn’t let you forget about that little fact. He regularly makes mincemeat of his enemies in seconds due to his prowess with a sword and when he’s not declaring his love for Dejah Thoris, he’s bragging to the reader of his excellent swordsmanship... so it seemed kind of strange to me that his enemies were putting up that much of a fight in the movie version.
The other big thing they missed a trick with in the movie was the red indians of the book. Burroughs was once a cavalryman himself in his adventurous life before he became a writer (out of having a wife and child to support) and Carter’s racist but initially understandable attitude to the indians at the start of the book is made a big deal of... basically to show later that Carter is a fair man who is able to overcome these prejudices by bringing peace between the green Tharks and the Red Men of Mars. The Tharks themselves, of course, being a huge metaphor for the indians on Carter's home planet. There are indians in the film but Carter is seen trying to talk peace to them early in the film and there’s just not enough of those indians showing a presence in the movie to make the metaphor shine through from under the surface in this version. Which is a shame because I could have done without the Martian battle prelude at the start of the movie and instead would personally have spent more time setting the character up on earth to bring the message home later. But since they already messed with Carter’s character... it’s kind of screwed up anyway.
Now I could mention some stuff here about the huge debt a gazillion other sci-fi films over the years owe to these initial novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs... the arena scenes from Star Wars II: Attack Of The Clones for example... or pretty much the whole of that terrible Avatar movie, to name just a couple... but I think probably everyone’s realised by now just what’s been going on here in the one hundred years since A Princess Of Mars was first published. But I will just say that the sail barges in Star Wars VI: Return Of The Jedi are what the sail barges in the movie version of John Carter should have looked like... ‘nuff said.
Okay, so while that all sounds pretty negative and, I dunno, a big deal to me (and yeah it is) please realise that even after all those terrible liberties, which to my mind are less to do with the art of adaptation and more to do with “mucking around irresponsibly with a character who needed to be portrayed correctly”, I still was moved enough by the movie, not to mention entertained by it, that I’ll definitely be buying this one as soon as it comes out on DVD... even looking forward to seeing it again.
So let me leave you with one last double verdict above and beyond the film's inherent faults, just in case you’ve been taking the films multimillion dollar flop status and the rantings of some of the critics with anything less than a pinch of salt...
If you’re already a fan of Edgar Rice Burrough’s greatest, in my humble opinion, creation then you’ll certainly see some of the essence of the world and culture of Barsoom reflected back at you in this movie... so give it a watch.
If, however, you’ve never heard of John Carter and are unsure what it’s all about then definitely go and see this movie. It’s heart warming, if not completely intelligent, science fiction cinema at its best... but then, please read at least one of the books to get the real story and flavour of Burrough’s characters... you wont regret it.***
* Saying that though... the characters in the movie are all wearing clothes and that’s not something they really do in the books. A shame they couldn’t have just gone for an 18 certificate!
** Yes @momentsoffilm, he’s pretty much topless throughout the whole movie, young lady, if that’s what you’re getting at. See his chest in shoddy multiplex 3D now!
*** This is, of course, not a guarantee... if you do see it and regret it, don’t come whining to me.