Both: Split decision: Howard, after some reflection, just doesn’t like it. Lawrence thinks it’s a good action/adventure film, but not a great one. Howard Waldrop: John Carter is Edgar Rice Burroughs for people who’ve seen Avatar and Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence Person: It strikes me as a good-faith effort to capture the feel of A Princess of Mars, updated just enough to make it (almost) acceptable to modern audiences. It falls short in ways that are very typical of special effects movies of this era.
One reason Howard and I have differing opinions may be the different ages we first came to the source material. Howard read the Burroughs novels as an early teenager, the perfect age for them to work their visceral magic on a boy’s imagination, whereas I read A Princess of Mars in my thirties, when I was already thinking of the novel as an artifact of its time, something I could see the primal appeal of without actually sharing it. That distance let me enjoy the movie for what it is: a steampunk action adventure spectacle update of a book that was already a period piece.
HW: The main problem of filming John Carter 100 years after the source material was written (Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars) is all the movies that have been made in the intervening century.
John Carter, an embittered, unreconstructed ex-Confederate cavalryman, ends up on Mars, and stuff happens.
In the frame story, John Carter’s nephew, a young man named Edgar Rice Burroughs, is brought to Carter’s estate after his uncle’s mysterious death, and is given Carter’s journal to read. (In 1881, the setting, the real Burroughs was 6 years old.) The only part of the movie that really works, and gets some of the flavor of Burroughs across, is the last 10 minutes, back in the envelope story (and of course, setting us up for the sequel); there is some hint of what it must be like to venture between worlds.
LP: Some of the movie tracks the book. John Carter goes to Mars and gets captured by the tall, four-armed, green-skinned, tusked Tharks, who discover that Carter is amazingly strong on their world. Meanwhile, the human cities of Helium (good guys) and Zodanga (bad guys) are at war, and John Carter ends up saving the life of Helium princess Dejah Thoris. All of that is (more or less) from the book. Thoris’ impending wedding to the chief bad guy isn’t (at least in the first book), and neither is the instrumentality by which Carter gets there (more about which anon).
HW: As the story of the film’s genesis came to me: it could have been much worse. First, it was to be a live-action Tom Cruise vehicle, in the early 90s. Then Disney wanted to make it one of those big splashy animated musicals, along the Beauty and the Beast/ Hunchback of Notre Dame lines, the then-current fashion. A long succession of writers tried their hands at each metamorphosis, until the current guys went Back To The Book and turned in a script they could use (with an assist from Michael Chabon). You can see the Tom Cruise template; the star here (Taylor Kitsch) is a smaller, thinner actor than most people imagine John Carter to be.
LP: Kitsch is OK, and all the acting here is at least good or better. I too would have expected a Carter that was a bit beefier, older and more grizzled, but Kitsch plays the part as written. Dominic West, most famous for his role as the dogged, self-destructive Det. McNulty in The Wire, is fine in the underwritten villain’s role. Lynn Collins is hot but a little static as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Science. All of the CGI actors seem to get better lines than the humans.
HW: The other working template is David Lynch’s Dune. (See what I said about intervening movies?) The politics of Mars (Burroughs got most of them out of a bottle of Scotch) are more easily explained if there’s some kind of secret priestly order (the Thurns) a cross between the Illuminati and the Bene Gesserit, who can and do travel between Mars (Barsoom) and Earth (Jasoom). They do so by means of a medallion (which puts the travel on a semi-scientific voodoo basis), rather than the mystical, wish-fulfillment voodoo basis of the original novel, in the scenes of Carter in the Arizona cave (with, in the book, the body of a dead Apache).
LP: The original way “look up at Mars and blink you’re there” method from the book isn’t even as scientifically plausible as Dorothy clicking her heels together. I can understand the need to insert a vaguely plausible mechanism for getting him to Mars. The problem is that the method they come up with ends up taking up too much weight, making the Thurns Universal Plot Devices and necessitating moving scenes from the book around willy-nilly, usually to no good effect. Thurns are also simultaneously too mysterious and not mysterious enough (“let me tell you just enough so you know we’re the bad guys and move the plot forward”). It all hangs together a lot more plausibly than Thor or Cowboys & Aliens (which is probably damning it with faint praise).
HW: There’s stuff wrong with the physics in the movie. Much is made of Carter’s Earth-muscle ability to jump (there are some semi-funny scenes of Carter learning how not to injure himself every step when he’s first on Mars). Mars’ gravity is about .37g, our Moon’s around .16g—and you didn’t see the lunar astronauts making 200-meter-long, 59-meter-high leaps there, at half Mars gravity.
LP: Howard’s right, but the leaping stuff is almost straight from the book, which is filled to the brim with adolescent male wish fulfillment. (Though the scene where Carter jumps a damn quarter-mile isn’t, and is lazy and unnecessary.) On the other hand, I don’t remember him breaking thick iron chains with such abandon in the book…
HW: And the moons of Mars look like two smaller Earth moons hanging in the sky, and there’s talk of “Moonrise” like on Earth. (Deimos and Phobos look like potatoes, and one of them zips around the planet 6 times a day—they’re probably in the same part of the sky for about 3 minutes every 24.57 hours.)
You could take all that if all those other movies hadn’t gotten in the way. There are bad Red Martians in a walking city; nicer Red Martians in Helium, run along the lines of Rome. Dejah Thoris, besides being a Princess, is the chief scientist, looking for the Ninth Ray (a secret controlled by the Thurns). There are the Tharks, green 15-foot-tall 4-armed Martians (like Apaches, or the Arabs in Lawrence). There’s Woola, the equivalent of a giant batrachian puppy-dog, sort of like if Danny DeVito had been crossed with a diplovertebron. There are banths, the camel-equivalents the Tharks ride. The Thark raid on the walking city is staged just like the Arab raid on Jaffa in Lawrence.
LP: Another reason I probably enjoyed the movie better than Howard is that the Tharks and the dog worked pretty well for me. I also liked the fact that the role of Sola, the female Thark that becomes something of a mother/protector to Carter (at great cost to herself) tracks her role in the book. Indeed almost all the scenes with the Tharks are better than the scenes strictly between humans.
HW: There’s a scene of Carter and the Thurn walking through the city on Dejah Thoris’ wedding day (to the chief bad guy, playing it like Tiberius in I, Claudius). The Thurn keeps shape-changing, to guys Carter knows, to older women, back to the Thurn. The template is the Ian Holm /Peter Weller stroll through Tangiers, with the telepathy, in Naked Lunch. It was done better there.
Let’s talk about the effects. The green Martians are swell, much indebted to Avatar; there’s individuation of character, they look alive. The giant 4-armed apes (in the arena scenes) are big, mindless and fairly scary. The Martian fliers look like crosses between Roman triremes and giant dragonflies, and they blow up Real Good.
LP: I enjoyed the look of the fliers, which could have flown off a Roger Dean album cover. Indeed, the whole steampunk look of the human city scenes generally works (though once again, the Vast Interior Architectural Spaces here look as lifeless and unlikely as they do in Thor and Revenge of the Sith).
HW: What’s wrong with this movie? A lot, and most of it I can’t put my finger on. It may just have the wrong feel, something hard to control. I never thought of the Barsoom books as action/adventure spectacles (although that was in there). As I said, the closing minutes get closer to the feel of Burroughs, and that was a happy by-product of wrapping things up.
LP: Though I clearly liked it better than Howard, he’s right; there is something missing here, and I can’t quite put my finger on it either. Part of it is pacing problems in the human interaction scenes, especially those in the sappy romance (which was sappy in the original book as well). 132 minutes is at least 12 minutes too long. But I still found the action scenes gripping, especially the ones of the Tharks, and I was never bored. Also, the 3D worked for me in a way it didn’t for Alice in Wonderland or Thor. (Howard saw it in 2D since, thanks to recent eye surgery, that whole third D is wasted on him.)
This is a good popcorn movie, but nothing you’ll remember much about a year from now.
HW: Perhaps it’s that the movie is on a lower diction level than the original novel. (Is such a thing possible? Yes, in these dumbed-down times). It’s those pesky intervening 100 years of film junk that have messed up some of the wonder and mystery of the Mars books.
LP: None of the dialog made me cringe, which is a lot more than I can say about Cowboys & Aliens. Or the remake of The Wicker Man. Or 9. Or Skyline. I will now stop before this becomes a rant on Movies These Days.
HW: Maybe this should have been filmed in the 1930s and 40s (at the same time as the Tarzan novels) with crappy special effects, etc. Maybe the book would have come across as more intact, and, well, pure.
Sometimes you have to take your junk culture whole. This isn’t even that; it’s inflated, overdone, junk culture, another symptom of the times. This must retroactively be biting E. R. Burroughs on the butt.
LP: My enjoyment of the film may be closely linked to my lack of emotional attachment to the source material. The original was already so old and scientifically impossible by the time I read it that the changes made here don’t bother me on a philosophical level. Just about all of them are individually defensible, though they add up to make the movie feel more like, well, just about every special effects-laden SciFi spectacular of the last ten years. But if someone had taken similar liberties with, say, The Lord of the Rings films, I would probably be incensed. [Imagine there’s a long, detailed paragraph here explaining the differing frames of expectations for high fantasy and period science fiction. Got it? Good. Let’s move on.] But since I regard A Princess of Mars as essentially an antiquated, noisy action/adventure spectacle that’s pretty much unfilmable as originally written, the changes don’t irk me the way they probably will a Burroughs devotee.
HW: Somewhere in all this is a good, different movie with the same plot, sort of like Burroughs wrote it originally.
I’m sure it’ll make a bazillion dollars, so there’ll be more Just Like It.