We are a culture that is obsessed with the latest and greatest trend. It’s only natural since technological and societal have exploded more within the latest generation than any tome in human history. Still, it is reassuring to look back in time and appreciate some of the classics that formed the foundation for the modern favorites. One literary character fitting this description is coming up on his centennial; John Carter’. If you hear this name and immediately think of a doctor on ‘E.R.’ then you are caught somewhere between the current generation and the baby boomers. For those of us that became ardent fans of science fiction and fantasy we did so reading old paperbacks back when reading was an activity that encompassed sight, touch and smell. A Kindle is great but nothing beats the feel of old paper beneath your fingers or the smell of a well worn book. Of course I covered the usual greats of that genre; Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov but even they would readily admit they owe a debt of gratitude to one of the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most people know him as the creator of the English nobleman raided in the jungles of Africa, Tarzan’. While those stories were a significant portion of this author’s oeuvre they are by no means the only franchise he created. One series of novels, the Barsoom saga, encompassed eleven novels. This series was one of the first to take on the possibility of interplanetary travel. Although this is an extremely common trope now remember that the first John Carter book appeared back in 1912. Before the parents of the creators of James T. Kirk and Luke Skywalker were even born, Rice had John Carter engaging in massive battles on the far away planet, Mars. All of the space battles we enjoy on a regular basis are direct descendents of this laudable series of fascinating stories. They were also a significant influence on many a burgeoning Sci-Fi aficionados including myself. While the film did not accomplish the critical and fiduciary goals of the studio it is still an enjoyable popcorn flick. With a budget estimated at a quarter of a million dollars a box office return of $72 million did not thrill the studio executives.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) was born on Earth in the early part on the nineteenth century. He served during the American Civil War as a Captain for the Confederacy. As the story begins Carter has died and his belongings were passed to his favorite nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) better known simply as Ned. The details of the estate are rather strange but Ned complies. Carter is placed in a tomb which can only be opened from the inside. The executor gives Ned a sizable volume of papers, Carter’s personal journal, which provides an account of extraordinary exploits. They begin during Carter’s post war time in the Arizona territory. He is arrested by Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) who is having a difficult time handling the local Apache tribe. Carter is known as a formidable tactician so Powell offers him a chance to help out. Carter has other plans and quickly escapes. Carter and the men assigned to bring him back wind up in a cave that Carter hoped would yield some gold. Instead of the precious metal they come across a strange creature we later learn is called a Thern. Carter manages to kill it but is transported to Mars. The first thing Carter has to contend with is the difference terrestrial physique he is capable of incredible feats of strength and jump incredibly high in the lower Martian gravity. The observant comic book fan might recognize this as ‘bending steel with his bare hands and leaping over tall buildings in a single bound’, one of the earliest descriptions of Superman. Like Carter Kal-el attributed his powers to the gravity difference. Carter discovers that there are two several types of Martians, the Thern, which he already met, the so called White Martians, and the Green Martians, a draconian species who take Carter captive. They have been at war with the Red Martians for thousands of years. Another form of inhabitants, the Red Martians has been engaged in their own Civil war. For thousands of years two of their major cities, Helium and Zodanga have been engaged in vicious battles. The Thern hope to end the war by marrying the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but she escapes. There is a persistent problem with the concept of securing prisoners rampart in this story; everyone gets to escape in the nick of time. Another now common plot device finds its early use here, the death ray, al all powerful ultimate weapon. Thanks to his amazing physical abilities and his natural predilection for strategy, Carter soon finds himself the hero of Mars.
A lot of the criticism heaped upon this film point to its predictability and that nothing seems new. There is a very good reason for this perspective; almost every aspect of this film has been used a lot over the years. The factor that must be remembered is Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the creative minds that did it all first. In 1912 this was brand new and considered cutting edge, at least in the pulp novel market. The trouble inherent in this movie is a sizable number of the audience members grew up in a world where Burroughs has exerted his vast influence. If you take this more like a period piece you will get a lot more out of it. The special effects certainly do bring this century old story into the new millennium. The 3D is better than most examples of this new technology. The director, Andrew Stanton wrote and directed some of Pixar’s greatest hits including ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Finding Nemo’. Perhaps this provided him with the ability to visualize scenes in a different way but I got the impression that this is why his 3D is not gimmicky. It is used more as a story telling device rather than showing off by constantly thrusting objects at the viewers. Stanton also treats this film very much as if it was an old school western. Back when John Carter was popular the old West was all the rage. In fact it was also the year Arizona became the 48th state. This keeps in the original intent of the stories intact. Forget any bad press and have some fun watching this one.
Perhaps if the studio had demonstrated more respect for both the material and science fiction fans in general this film may have had the opportunity to reach the potential that was fundamentally crafted into it. The simple decision to alter the title to reflect only the name of the protagonist might seem inconsequential but it immediately disconnects the film from the original work by Mr. Burroughs but far more importantly from the enormous legacy the piece of literary genius generated. On an almost subliminal level this compelled the audience to anticipate something novel. Since the majority of the demographic became interested in sci-fi and subsequently the big blockbuster movies the engendered, the studio that normally is concerned with heightening public demand accomplished the exact opposite. As someone that grew up on paperback editions of both Mr. Burroughs and his literary descendants such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein I was predisposed to appreciate the material contained in this film for what it actually was; a tribute to the genre we have loved and enjoy our entire lives. By distancing this movie from the original work the studio ensured a failure. They definitely should have embraced its origins, most especially the author. If only they had built the marketing campaign on the astounding importance this material had on the generations to follow this movie would have come across as homage rather than derivative. They did attempt to rectify this egregious mistake in the home theater release bur alas, too little, too late to save the film.
Posted 05/28/12 Posted 05/10/2016