John Carter (2012)

Written by  //  March 10, 2012  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  1 Comment

So here’s the thing: I love the Barsoom series and have been looking forward to this movie for months now, what with that epic trailer that totally targeted the people-with-good-taste demographic.  Which was why I was a little surprised and very nervous to find that the cinema hall was entirely comprised of, hmm, how to say this nicely…  The Clash of the Titans demographic.  How could the Disney marketing machine have screwed up so?  Or, could it be that this was the film’s intended audience?  No wonder friends who think Michael Bay is a great and nuanced director turned their noses up at this film!  I assumed that there was no mention of the 1917 book series in the trailer because of typical geek snobbery (“if they don’t already know the books exist, then they don’t deserve to know“) but it is more likely that they didn’t want to scare off new audiences with all that talk about pioneering series that invented pulp sci-fi genre because everybody knows that there is no pay-off in pandering to the geeks.  But in spite of these harsh truths,  I enjoyed the film immensely (with some quibbles of course).

But I must offer a word of caution to new fans and old.  I know that it is not a good sign when a film is preceded by disclaimers, but it is vital to remember that this book this film is based on was written almost a hundred years ago.  It was written in a time when Mars was for all practical purposes, as distant as the farthest galaxy because space travel was an absurd daydream and when science fiction resembled fantasy.  I wish CGI and motion capture technology existed 90 years ago, because that was when this film ought to have been made.  People would then realize that John Carter is not derivative; it is in fact, the inspiration for every single space opera we know and love. Edgar Rice Burroughs was a visionary who, not only inspired Golden Age sci-fi authors but also counts several scientists and astrophysicists among his fans. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without Barsoom, there may have been no Spirit or Opportunity on Mars.  Which is why I’m glad this film got made– better late than never.

This film tells the story of John Carter, an American civil war veteran who is mysteriously transported to an inhabited, dying planet, Barsoom, and finds himself embroiled in the deadly power struggles of the people there.  There are the strange and alien-looking Tharks– a savage, uncivilized, patriarchal race lacking in human sentiment and vision. There are the Red Martians– a highly developed humanoid race locked in civil war. And then there are the mysterious Therns, dismissed as legend by most. Here Carter finds unlikely allies: the beautiful Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, an unusual thark named Tars Tarkas and the world’s most faithful dog, Woola.

While it wasn’t perfect, I think director Andrew Stanton did a fantastic job in bringing to life Burrough’s creation. This film did not blow my socks off, but it drew me into its immersive and beautifully drawn world.  Like the books, this film sometimes sacrificed narrative in order to focus on the characters’ conflicts, on Carter’s frustration and admiration of the Martians, and of course, the dizzyingly  fast plot.

The film’s greatest weakness was introducing too many elements and then glossing over them all in the climax. I understand that they were trying to  give texture to Barsoom, but the end result was hurried and confusing.  I would have also loved to have seen more of Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and the other Tharks.  That said, the characters’ screen time was used effectively:  a short scene about the Thark hatchlings tells us so much about all the characters and Thark society.  I am also glad that they did not use Barsoom as an unsubtle metaphor for the global recession or some such nonsense.  The film creates an alien and fantastical world that leaves you wanting to delve deeper into its mysteries.

If the film had more closely followed the book, it would have been derided as an Avatar knock-off and would’ve resulted in far fewer “Whoa!” scenes in the trailer.  Besides, merely enacting page after page of the book is doing a disservice to it; films and books are too different to merely mimic each other.  The script-writers cleverly expanded on the Carter universe by borrowing threads from across the Barsoom series and have ultimately stayed true to Burrough’s vision.

Maybe it’s just me and my dreadful addiction to nostalgia, but after watching this film, the night skies seem a little friendlier.  How can there not be a Tars Tarkas or a Kantos Kan out there? In any case, I am calling eternal dibs on the dog name Woola, for the loyal and tenacious pup that I will adopt some day.

One Comment on "John Carter (2012)"

  1. Danish Sheikh March 10, 2012 at 2:13 pm ·

    I wouldn’t call it derivative for the very same reasons you mentioned, but it just felt so …flat and forgettable. There were massive pacing problems, it either dragged too much (that whole section from where he lands on Barsoom till the middle of the movie) or it felt too rushed (in particular, the final “battle”. I felt cheated when it ended so suddenly, without any earned emotional or visual moments). Maybe I was expecting too much based on the fact that it was made by the director of Wall E and Finding Nemo, but even adjusted for that, it just didn’t soar.

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