Sunday, March 18

John Carter (2012)

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Let me begin by saying that I really enjoyed this movie as a movie, although I had problems with some aspects of the plot (not even related to the derivations from the original book, A Princess of Mars). But what movie these days – especially big budget special effects blockbusters – doesn't have plotholes? I think this movie could have done as well as any other sci-fi epic … were it not fighting such a headwind of negative pre-release publicity. Sometimes such negativity never gives an otherwise good movie a chance. Last year, the movie that became cool to hate even before it appeared was Green Lantern, which I didn't think was bad, just nothing special. I think John Carter was better than Green Lantern … at least I enjoyed it more. And there are some signs that word of mouth may be ameliorating to some degree the disastrous opening weekend box office take. Time will tell. But, regardless whatever happens during the next few weeks, it is my opinion that John Carter will ultimately stand the test of time and become the movie from spring 2012 that will be remembered ten years from now. 21 Jump Street? – Give me a break! Its only real competition, as I see it, might be The Hunger Games, but that remains to be seen. As I said, time will tell.

Anyway, what follows here are some random comments/assessments of John Carter, based on not one but two viewings of the movie. When I first saw it, opening day, I enjoyed it as a movie although I lamented that it took considerable liberties with the story originally published a century ago. A week later I saw it again, after a few days of thought and with more of a critical eye, taking notes, and in light of a good bit of email exchange with my good efriend, Barry Ottey. His insights were quite helpful in properly assessing it. I also had the advantage of going into it with no forlorn hope that it might be a totally faithful adaptation and was therefore better able to take it in on its own terms.   To make a long story short, I enjoyed John Carter even more the second go'round. But this is not really a review, and will be even more rambly than my usual efforts.

Because my main complaints upon initial viewing surrounded deviations from the original story, that will be a major theme here. There are also implications the wider world of Barsoom and sequels – should such be made – that I will consider.

One change I'll never truly understand as many times as I read Stanton's explanation is why they changed the title from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter. The stated reason, that “Mars” as part of a title has not boded well for films in the past just seems dumb to me. The only good thing that came of it was the very nice and long overdue addition of “of Mars” to the title card at the very end of the movie, after John Carter has undergone considerable character transformation and in fact has just laid down in his New York mausoleum to make the journey back to his adopted world. That was nicely done. It complemented very well his dialogue a few minutes earlier, “John Carter of Earth … John Carter of Mars sounds better.” Yes it does. But a simple title of John Carter gives no hint of what this movie is about. The uninitiated coming across the early trailers for the movie could only come away mystified and confused rather than intrigued. I could go on and on about the marketing mismanagement that John Carter labored under. Suffice it to say they should have led with their strengths – the connection to Tarzan, Pixar, the fact that this story is the source for a century of epic space romance from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to (yech!) Avatar. As Dr. McCoy said one time (in what context I don't remember), “A blind man could see it with a cane!”

The look was magnificent. This movie looked awesome. In my opinion, you could easily see the money on the screen. The green Martians were magnificent, both as playful hatchlings and fierce giants. I rarely found myself remembering that they were CGI. Same with the great white apes (although if I recall correctly they were not nearly so big, and were indeed hairless except for on the crown of their head). Of course, the dog-like calot Woola stole the show.

There was one aspect of the “look” that I was a bit disappointed in. I long held out hope that some kind of post production magic would add to the alien-ness of the Martian landscape, make it more truly the red planet. Yes, to the surprise of many a generation ago, space probes' images back from the Martian surface hae shown a landscape that looks much like the deserts of the American Southwest, but all the pictures I've seen have a reddish cast, with either a lighter grey-blue or pinkish sky, not the sandy (colored) surface with deep blue skies that dominate the movie. See e.g. the images from NASA about three-quarters of the way down this page: . I would think that given Mars' distance from the sun, half again as far as the Earth, an impression of a noticeably dimmer daylight could have been used to foster the viewers' awareness that this is meant to be an alien planet. Occasional reliance on John Carter's exaggerated (in the books as well as the movie – I don't think he'd be able to jump quite that high or far in one-third gravity) ability to Sak! (as Tars Tarkas put it) just weren't enough – in fact, without those other visible reminders almost seemed out of place. My epal Barry points out ways in which what we saw can match up with Burroughs' description, particularly the ochre-colored moss that covers much of the Martian landscape in the books and was visible at times in the movie, but I think this is one area where playing to popular conception could have been called for. My favorite of the various posters that appeared for the movie - which I show above - captures what I'm saying best even though it's clearly a sunset image.  On the other hand, I was grateful that the red Martians were pretty much all noticeably darker in complexion than John Carter himself, suitably “bronzed” as Burroughs described them. And I didn't find the tattooing too distracting. Some of the previews had me worried on both counts.

One of the expected changes was, of course, “Dejah Thoris, Warrior Princess.” Modern sensibilities will not accept the damsel in distress who basically goes from captivity to captivity providing motivation for the hero to do heroic deeds. Remember how Arwen's role was ramped up, at least in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. And here it worked, maybe because I'd been somewhat prepared for this characterization of Dejah Thoris. I found her much like that portrayed in the Dynamite comic book series bearing her name. And I guess giving her the role of a scientist discovering the “Ninth Ray” was a necessary plot device to give her a central role in the story, help explain the Therns' focussing on her. I must say I found the references to her as “Director of the Royal Science Academy of Helium” a bit jarring, but I did like how they set up John Carter's discovery of her true status and his reaction, bemusedly saying, “A Princess of Mars. How 'bout that.” Whereupon I chuckled.

There was quite a bit of streamlining to the story, at least as characters go. Dejah Thoris in the book is the granddaughter of Tardos Mors, not his daughter. His son, her father is a character who does not exist in the movie, Mors Kajak. I actually had no real problem with that change – if I recall correctly, Mors Kajak never really takes a major role in the original stories anyway. A similar change among the green Martians does have a bit more of a story impact. When Tars Tarkas is introduced in the movie, he is already Jeddak of the Tharks, with Tal Hajus one of his warriors who later deposes him, only to be unseated by John Carter who therefore becomes Jeddak. In the novel, of course, Tal Hajus is Jeddak to begin with, and Tars Tarkas ultimately challenges and kills him to become Jeddak. I really didn't have any problem with this either. The change actually worked quite well dramatically.

On balance, although I really could have done without the “war-weary warrior” cliché of John Carter running from the tragic deaths of his family while he was away at war, it was a perhaps inevitable bow to modern sensibilities that worked pretty well in the movie, providing us with that all-important and necessary character growth we've got to see now. It was not at all Burroughs' John Carter – but okay. Realistically, I couldn't have expected such a warrior for the sake of warfare to have played well to a modern audience and it's best they didn't try. It did provide us with what I thought was one of the most moving sequences in the film, the juxtaposition of his memories of burying his family – for whom he'd come back too late – with his fight against impossible odds to allow Sola to get Dejah Thoris away from the Warhoons. And the way it was played into the plot, with John Carter resisting getting involved in “Dejah Thoris's war” until he understood that it was his own war on a couple of different levels, did make for some compelling character drama.

Several times in the movie we are shown that the “Therns” (not really Therns – “The Therns are a myth,” proclaims Matai Shang [see below]) have been active on Earth. That's the more science-fictiony way of getting John Carter from the Arizona cave to the red planet than the book's mysterious form of astral projection or whatnot which is purely fantasy and would doubtless have come off quite silly to modern audiences. Matai Shang knows a great deal about 19th-century American culture, enough to nail down John Carter's origin in the South, specifically Virginia. He proclaims to John Carter that they have been on Mars for ages, not destroying the planet but “presiding over its destruction,” fomenting wars and the like, apparently feeding off its resources while its people exterminate themselves and nothing is left. The implication is that they then move on to another world. Pretty obviously Earth is next on the menu, and the further implication is that they've already been active there for thousands of years. It's indicated pretty subtly. Our one good look at Martian writing, in the temple or whatever up on top of the mushroom-looking “Gates of Issus,” looks just like Mesopotamian cuneiforms.

“The Therns are a myth.” Which means that the aliens are co-opting a pre-existing myth rather than serving as the source of that myth – at least that's the way I take it. Which brings up the question of the goddess Issus, hopefully to be dealt with in a subsequent move (if we're lucky).

But adding such an “interplanetary threat” to the story does, I think, have unfortunate consequences for those subsequent stories. And that's not all. While I was pleasantly surprised that, overall, the plot ended up following that of A Princess of Mars fairly well, I'm not so sure they did very well setting up subsequent movies that could track the other books nearly as closely. For several reasons, I would not expect this Dejah Thoris to give up in despair and take the River Iss to “Heaven.” She doesn't believe in the Therns in the first place, and why now would she want to head south? She's really barely John Carter's wife before he's swept back to Earth. Maybe their son Carthoris has been conceived by then, but John Carter did not have years of expectant waiting by the incubating egg to then torment him during his years back on Earth, separated not just from his wife of several years but from the child that was due to be hatched.

About that: This is just a feeling I get from the movie, but I think they ditched the idea that the red Martians were oviparous like the green Martians explicitly were. There's something else indicating this as well. 
One thing that has puzzled me quite a bit, expecially with the … um … ample bosoms sported by the red Martian women as depicted in the Dynamite series, is why Martian women have breasts in the first place. They wouldn't be for lactation, right? So, to further ridicule the “pasties” that adorn them in all but the “risque” variant covers of the Dynamite series, would they have nipples? 
Hilariously, the Dynamite series depicts green women with just as ample breasts as the reds … but no nipples or pasties.  
But if you look closely at the green women in this movie (purely out of scholarly interest, of course), they don't even have breasts at all.  This would, in my opinion, track with their egg-laying reproductive physiology. 
Although (this being a PG movie – from Disney) there are no nipples to be seen, Dejah Thoris is most definitely not “flat.” Implicitly she therefore is not egg-laying. I figure that, like the extended life-spans of all Martians, basically ageless until they reach about a thousand years, then voluntarily taking the River Iss, and the ageless nature of John Carter in the book, this aspect of the red Martian humans was deemed too fanciful for a broad audience.

Anyway, I think that any sequels are going to diverge increasingly from the books as Burroughs wrote them. It will be necessary to develop quite a bit further the whole parasitic alien aspect of the Therns that is not in any way part of the original story, at the necessary expense of what Burroughs actually wrote. Which I think will be unfortunate.

I have a few more thoughts. Again, I did like this movie. It was at least as good as most sci-fi swords-in-space stories, and looked better than most. It incorporated enough of Burroughs' own imaginative world-building to result in a “believable” alien world. The major misstep I saw in that area was intruding into the story out of left field a ridiculous walking city – Words just escape me at this point. I have no idea what that was all about!

It had rousing adventure, grand vistas, and a good bit of humor. There were laugh-out-loud moments such as when John Carter has gained leadership of the Tharks and rallied them into attacking what turns out to be a virtually abandoned Zodanga the Walking City ( 8-0 [an attempted emoticon for slack-jawed astonishment), only to find out that they really needed to be in Helium, whereupon one of Tars Tarkas' four hands cuffs John Carter behind the head as if to say, “You dolt!” Speaking of four hands, there was John Carter's earlier comment to Tars Tarkas in the arena, “Tars, give me a hand! You've got four of 'em; give me one!” That got a definite laugh. There were of course, moments where I groaned out loud. Besides the Walking City, I'm thinking of when Matai Shang resorted to the old cliché of transforming himself into the form of Dejah Thoris when he was fighting her. Argh. What deception was he perpetrating at that point? – sure, a couple of seconds later, when John Carter is there, maybe, although from the two Dejah Thoris's respective demeanors it was clear which was which at that point), and there is a clear purpose moments later when he impersonates John Carter himself moments later to fool Tars Tarkas (who seems suspicious nonetheless – maybe because “John Carter” called him “My Jeddak” – I guess Matai Shang didn't get the memo that John Carter was himself Jeddak at that point!) But taking Dejah Thoris's form when he did seemed more in line with a B-movie trope than to make any sense within this story at that point.

By the way, among the additions to the Therns was their teleportation ability as well as an ill-defined ability to physically transform themselves or cast a sensory illusion. The latter seemed to be treated both ways, or either way in different contexts, as if the filmmakers themselves hadn't really thought it through.

Another thing I did like was how in the early part of John Carter's sojourn on Mars he faced the obvious language barrier and a Barsoomian language much more fully developed than anything Burroughs ever devised was in evidence. Of course, then he mysteriously learned the language overnight – “Voice of Barsoom”? – at least he seemed as mystified as the audience did! Of course, nobody wanted the whole film to be in subtitles. They did very well in using what little Barsoomian Burroughs did provide – “Kaor” for “Hello,” “Sak” for “Jump,” and the like. The names of the worlds – “Rasoom,” “Jasoom,” “Barsoom” – and the moons “Cluros” and “Thuria.” … Barry pointed out a problematic usage of “karad” as a measure of distance rather than “haad.” We exchanged several emails discussing that. He says its wrong, I say it's “problematic.” The only books of the eleven that make up the John Carter of Mars series that I've subjected to any kind of word-search analysis are #1-5, since only they are in public domain and hence available in free ebook format. In those, the only hits I get for “karad” are: (1) In #4, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, in the footnote to chapter 6 (near the beginning), a table of linear measurement defining a karad as 100 haads or one-360th of the circumference of Mars at the equator; (2) In the glossary of the same book, where it's defined as “a Martian degree”; and (3) In the first chapter of #5, Chessmen of Mars, where the usage is clearly synonymous with degree. Burroughs apparently never used it explicitly as a linear measurement … and yet it appears in a table of linear measurement. Hence, “problematic.” (I finally proposed maybe it was a conscious choice based on uncertainty how to pronounce “haad” – “hahd”? – “hadd”? – “HAY-add”? – which Barry maybe jokingly agreed with....) (Note: I find it interesting that the Martians use the same definition of a degree as we do, i.e., 360 in a circle, even though their other measurements are generally-speaking decimal. I think that's a slight failure of imagination on ERB's part. There's nothing really magical about 360 degrees.)

One aspect of the language I did find annoying is one I've already complained about with regard to the Dynamite series of comics: In only one instance did Burroughs ever have Dejah Thoris referred to by her “first name” only – one of the chapters of A Princess of Mars is entitled, “I Find Dejah.” Otherwise, her name is always “Dejah Thoris.” Neither element stands alone. Likewise, she never refers to him as “John” or “Carter” but always as “John Carter.” The Barsoomians appear not to have had surnames properly speaking, hence Tardos Mors' son was Mors Kajak, whose daughter was Dejah Thoris. Yes, Burroughs does refer to surnames in the case oof the greens, whence John Carter gets his Thark/Barsoomian name (not “Veer-ZHIN-yah”! Although that did make a fine running joke), “Dotar Sojat,” not “Right Hand” as it's strongly implied but rather the “surnames” of the first two warriors he kills. What Burroughs means by “surname” is not clear, because the green Martians have no concept of parentage and hence familial lineage; I would say he used it synonymously with “second name.” My overall point is that the names should have always been given in full, odd though it may sound to our Jassoomian audiences....

(Engaging in a little speculation here, maybe there was a pattern in naming eldest sons among the red Martians whereby the second name of the father becomes the first name of the son while the second name of the mother becomes the second name of the son. Tardos Mors' wife may have been ???? Kajak. That could be made to gee-haw (sort of) with Gods of Mars chapter 14, where John Carter's companion has just been revealed as his son, and tells him, “The people of Helium asked that I be named with my father's name [maybe as an unusual honor to the man who had opened the Atmosphere Plant and saved Barsoom], but my mother said no, that you and she had chosen a name for me together [more in line with tradition] … so the name that she called me is the one that you desired, a combination of hers and yours – Carthoris [which could be a pet-name, familiar conflation of “Carter Thoris”].” [I said made to gee-haw. I'm sure this could be quickly shot down with a little study.])

I could write much more, I'm sure, but won't. As you can see from the time stamp, it's well after midnight.  And as you can see from the last paragraph, I've descended into all but gibberish.  I apologise for the scattered nature of this post, even more so than usual.  I did love this movie, however.  Go see it.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far.

Later addition:  I can't believe I said nothing about the music.  It's wonderful.  Suitably epic, majestic, whimsical in the right places.  I know nothing of the composer Michael Giacchino, but he's a name I'll now notice, I'm sure.

Another later addition:  Something else I overlooked -- the implications of the nature of the "Ninth Ray" in this movie.  Briefly, in the books, the Barsoomians have discovered two more "colors" than Jassoomian science is aware of.  The first "Seven Rays" are the colors of our spectrum; the "Eighth Ray" is the motive force that propels light through the ether -- harnessed by them as an antigravitational force that serves as the basis for their airships; the "Ninth Ray" can be processed to interact with the ether to create breathable atmosphere, and is in fact the reason Barsoom is not now a long dead, airless rock.  Eons ago, as the atmosphere was thinning and the seas evaporating, Barsoomian science discovered the "Ninth Ray" in time to build the great Atmosphere Plant that has supported life ever since.  In the book, A Princess of Mars, it is the failure of the Atmosphere Plant after the murder of its Caretaker that ultimately results in John Carter being swept back to his homeworld; earlier he had acquired the secret of access to the Plant, and after a desperate flight there and giving access to an engineer, John Carter succumbs to asphyxiation -- and awakens back in the Arizona cave.  My first thought was that the way the "Ninth Ray" is portrayed in this movie negates any of that. I'm not sure it does, although it takes a bit of twisting of what we are presented with to make it work.  My latest thoughts are that, the "Ninth Ray" being a creative force could also be tapped -- perverted -- into a destructive force as seen here.  The discovery of that destructive potential could be what drives this plot in some ways, although I'd have to pay closer attention in yet another viewing (which won't come until the DVD is released) to see if that interpretation works in the scene where Dejah Thoris presents her discovery to the Jeddak and nobles of Helium.  This would, however, leave open the possibility of a "Ninth-Ray"-based Atmosphere Plant to fail in a subsequent story as Stanton has hinted in an interview.

Here's a good review from another fan of the books who liked the movie:  "John Carter no Citizen Kane, but...."  The writer nails what's good about this movie much better than I could. 

Unfortunately, John Carter's second weekend box office numbers turned out to be right in line with other recent genre films deemed commercial failures.  Note the very similar percentage drop from first to second weekend.  Although I have joined the Facebook page calling for a sequel, I expect I'll be disappointed.


  1. As Kent has noted above, our sentiments on the film are largely in agreement. With regard to the various Barsoomian names, I concur that they should have been voiced in full. Burroughs virtually never has characters addressing each other by less than their full names, nor would it sound terribly out-of-the-ordinary, simply due to the "alien-ness" of the names themselves.

    One aspect that Kent didn't comment on, that was a particular 'peeve' as far as I'm concerned, was the film's visualization of the Martian aircraft.

    As Kent noted, the Eighth and Ninth Rays were discovered long ages past, at the time when the great oceans of Barsoom were beginning to dry up and vanish. At the time, according to paintings which John Carter observes on the walls of some of the rooms in the deserted "seaport" cities used by the Tharks, Barsoom sported a massive fleet of merchant ships as well as vast wet-Navy armadas.

    With the discovery of the Eighth Ray, and its ability to essentially negate the pull of gravity on an object, it would have been far easier for the Barsoomians of that day to have simply refitted their ocean-going naval vessels with the required Eighth Ray storage tanks and larger propellers designed to move air rather than water.

    In point of fact, according to Burroughs, this is exactly what the ancient Barsoomians did, and the overall design of their airships had not changed appreciably in the thousands of years that passed between those days and the time of Carter's advent upon the Red Planet. In "A Princess of Mars", Carter describes his first sight of the Martian aircraft entirely in naval terms, even to referring to the largest of the craft as "boats" as he describes them.

    I would far rather have seen vessels that looked to be directly descended from navy ships, than the insectoid-looking craft presented to us in the movie.

    My other great lament, walking away from the film as a 58-year-old "romantic" who has for 30 years referred to his wife as "My Princess" (and gets the requisite "My chieftain" in response!) is that the screen-writers ripped that whole subtext entirely out of the story they told. It seems to me that, with the vast amounts of praise lavished upon Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" films for having adhered so well to the dialogue found in the books - and with this tale being every bit as much a literary classic - the writers would have felt obliged to include more than five or six words of "Barsoomian" and two old Martian proverbs in the script.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Barry! Your points are well taken.