‘John Carter’ : A steampunk sci-fi tale entertains

Damn logic and full speed ahead. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about a Virginian gentleman who was his supposedly immortal “Uncle Jack” in 1912, the same year he began his more successful Tarzan series. Disney’s CGI-intensive feature movie “John Carter” comes out on the centenary of Carter’s creation as well as a Martian astronomically significant day. Getting past the first minutes is a challenge and you have to forgive huge lapses in rational thinking to enjoy this movie which seems more like a high-priced pilot for a big screen adventure series.

The movie is mostly based on the first John Carter story, “A Princess of Mars,” but includes elements of the other stories, notably the shape-shifting race of the Therns. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Although the script by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon works hard to clear up some of the mysteries, it also takes a few film-making short cuts. Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is being followed and knows it. He sends a message to his favorite nephew before he’s found dead. According to his instructions, he is quickly entombed in a structure that can only be opened from the inside. When his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs arrives, Carter’s attorney gives Burroughs mysterious instructions and a diary. As Burroughs begins to read the diary, we are introduced to Carter’s story.

What better way to begin a Western than in a saloon. Dusty loner comes into miserably small Arizona town and suddenly has enough gold to pay off his tab (offering what seems like in ingot instead of nuggets). Before he can collect his supplies and return to his gold mine, the cavalry comes calling and detains him. The following historically inaccurate, senseless segment is supposed to be funny, but left me wondering if the writers had been drinking. Carter is captured and subjected to brutal acts of persuasion. You may wonder why. The U.S. army headed by Powell (Bryan Cranston) has been instructed that this former Confederate captain is necessary for the Union Army war against the Native Americans.

When did the U.S. government have the power to re-enlist Confederate officers in the post-Civil War Indian Wars? Historians, is this really possible? If you’re asking this, you’re smarter than the audience these script writers were aiming for. Carter escape from this questionable imprisonment and, caught between the Apaches and U.S. Army ends up rescuing Powell who has been wounded and carries him off into the mountains, taking shelter in a cave that the Apaches won’t enter. That’s a bad sign and Carter is suddenly transported to a different sort of desert.

Fans of the books and of the male form–you may be disappointed. Somehow Carter is transported fully clothes (although that makes for another mystery later). He finds that he cannot walk. Due to the different in gravitational pull between Earth and Mars, Carter’s every step is a flying leap. Watching his initial steps, is amusing. One wishes the writers had paralleled this segment with other learning processes (such as language, fighting and animal management).

Carter then meets the green men–six-limbed, with tusks that are like showy sideburns. Carter is befriended by one leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) although he antagonizes another, Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church).

Instead of entering the city as a captive guest, riding behind one of the green men as in the novel, Carter betrays Tars Tarkas’ display of alliance and attempts to kill or injure him. Oh, where is the honor of the Virginian? The writers add a bit of humor here as the Martians, or Barsoomians (Barsoom is Martian name for their planet) misunderstand Carter’s self-introduction. This is a nice touch, but the writers also have the green Martians shackling Carter and torturing one of their own, Sola (Samantha Morton).

In the movie, language apparently isn’t a cultural learned behavior, at least on Mars. You drink the water; you begin to hear the language of Mars and unlike Earth (Jarsoom), Martians all speak the same language. No Tower of Babel here.  In the novel, Carter grew close to Sola as she taught him different things including language.

In the movie, Carter also has a type of animal magnetism. He doesn’t have to earn the affection of the frog-dog, or Woola. He also doesn’t have to learn how to ride the beasts of Barsoom. That’s unfortunate, because one of the themes of the original story is how Carter teaches kindness to the green Barsoomians as not only a measure of honor (from the perspective of a Southern gentleman) but also as an effective way of training animals. In turn, although the green Martians have pragmatically organized their society as a collective, with a culling of the young and a brutal means of deciding hierarchy, the quality of kindness has survived. Deemed as a suspect sign of weakness, kindness seems to have been suppressed but is expressed by Tars Tarkas and Sola.

The red Martians are more humanoid because would a princess be worth saving if she looked like an anorexic sister of Shrek with six arms? Carter saves the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) as her people fly in air ships and are attacked by the evil forces of the prince of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West). Sab Than has gone over the the dark side, allying himself with the shape-shifting Therns who are led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong).  In the original John Carter series, the Therns do not appear until the second novel “The Gods of Mars” (1918).

The air ships of the Zodanga and the people of Dejah Thoris as well as the costumes are the thing of steam punk dreams. Dejah Thoris’ costumes will surely pop up at steampunk conventions, combining the allure of slave Princess Leia from “Star Wars” trilogy with steampunk. Belly dance harem fantasy meets Edwardian era pulp fiction. You might question some of the battle scenes. Why wouldn’t those great machines on air and on land easily defeat the green men? Why do the green men fight as if their extra set of arms were just there for show? Shouldn’t they have a different style of battle with swords? They do have firearms, but technology was and sometimes still is driven by warfare so you’d expect the air battle to be less important than improvement of battle on the ground. But then you’d miss the swinging pirate like attacks (aren’t these guys who can’t leap over a tall building in a single bound afraid of falling) and the gladiator like clashes.

The Therns have advanced technology and they explain how John Carter  teletransports from one planet to the next. Instead of “Beam me up” there’s a mantra to be used with a silver medallion that glows. The Therns are the real villains, but we also have those writers’ short cuts to make Sola and Tars Tarkas more sympathetic. As you’d expect the guy gets the girl at the end, but this movie has all the excitement of archeologist finds secrets of past societies (more explanation sure to follow in the next movie), the noble savages led by a white guy (with good manners), gladiator glory and gore,  and the angst of a widowed man finding new love, all under the CGI allowed by the science fiction genre.

Don’t worry. None of the new developments and scientific discoveries since Bourroughs’ time cloud his vision of Mars. In the end, everything is almost right even though John Carter is dead…or is he? Remember, there was more than one story of John Carter of Mars and who makes an expensive adventure movie these days without the hopes of making it a series.

For a guy who farmed, soldiered and sought gold in Arizona, Kischt is very pale skinned. Lynn Collins’ Dejah Thoris is a formidable woman warrior, more so than I felt she was portrayed in the original novel, but a lot has changed in a century since the book was published (although she is clothed in the movie where she was nearly naked in the novel because things haven’t changed that much). Woola remains a favorite of mine and I hope they bring Woola back.

While the first half was a disappointment, the second half improved and in the end, this was enjoyable if you really damned the logic, forgot the science and just took a big leap of science fiction fantasy faith.


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