Long Take: John Carter, Stuck on Mars & in the Past

Viewed June 15 & 16, 2012

Unless you live on Jupiter, you already know that Walt Disney Studios’s $200+ million gamble on animator Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, John Carter (2012), proved disastrous. That’s putting it mildly. The filmmakers infamously bet that an aging “built-in” fan-base for author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s rollicking sci-fi adventures set on the Red Planet, having first been published approximately one hundred years ago, would flock to the theater, bring their children and in some cases their grandchildren, and opt for tickets to see the picture in 3D. Since Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner has already done all the research and spoken to the right folks, I’m not going to recount how the studio’s marketing decisions “doomed” the film right out of the gate. John Carter may be destined to be remembered for costing studio chairman Rich Ross his job, but I like to think of it as an ultra-expensive exercise in needless film-making. In other words, Disney will probably think twice before handing its keys over, again, to a fanboy director who’s adapting an obscure source. Here’s another friendly warning: even if you have never seen the film, I am going to spoil it down below.

Based on the initial novel in the series, A Princess of Mars, the heavily CGI’d spectacle chronicles the Martian adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate cavalryman-turned-aspiring treasure hunter. Through a chance encounter with a “thern,” he comes into the possession of a medallion that accidentally transports him to Mars, which the natives refer to as “Barsoom.” He’s arrived at the worst possible time (or is it the best?) because the warrior class of Barsoomians from Zodanga (headed by Dominic West as Sab Than) mean to rage war against all others on the planet, especially the peaceful science-enthused city of Helium. It’s obvious that the disaffected Civil War veteran has embarked on a journey that will make it impossible for him to stay neutral. In the end, he manages to unite the Helium kingdom with the green, giant, and clan-like Tharks (who had initially imprisoned him) against Sab Than. Oh, and he marries the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), too.

Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton mentions on the behind-the-scenes documentary included on the DVD that the hardest part about adapting the story was condensing into a two-hour-long film a narrative that had previously unspoiled over the course of several novels. This is a fundamental mistake, because the greatest challenge is presenting John Carter of Mars, as it was initially known, as fresh, original. That same documentary captures the observations of writers, scientists, and other filmmakers, as they talk about how Burroughs’s novels are foundational texts within the sci-fi fantasy genre, having influenced the likes of Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and perhaps most noticeably George Lucas. I am no Star Wars fan (I was as a kid), and I have never read a Superman comic or seen any of the property’s cinematic iterations, but I have consumed enough popular American culture to know that John Carter the film is wholly unoriginal. It has really shitty visual effects, too.

From the outset, it hit me that John Carter is a blend of multiple genres, the sci-fi fantasy and the western being the most prominent. Aside from the scrummages across the desert-like surface of Barsoom, John also faces dust-ups with Apaches and the Union Army before his defection to the fourth planet from the sun; the latter had unsuccessfully attempted to enlist him, given his excellent skills as a cavalryman. There is also a fair amount of romance, what with his partnership with the runaway Dejah Thoris, a sword-wielding scientist. It was most striking to see the costumes of the Red People of Barsoom (those of Zodanga and Helium alike), because the actors look as if they just walked off a sword-and-sandal picture, or in the very least Starz’s Spartacus sex and death series. Finally, John Carter morphs into a war movie for the last act, when John convinces the Tharks to join him on his counterattack mission to Helium, which is about to be invaded Trojan-style. What’s worse is that John gives a rousing speech to potential Thark recruits covered in blue goo, the innards of a beast he had just slaughtered, thereby intentionally resembling Mel Gibson’s anachronistic William Wallace from Braveheart (Gibson, 1995). Talk about a beast that just won’t die.

Despite these stylistic references, John Carter definitely reminded me more of other recent live-action Disney adventure movies, such as the National Treasure films (Jon Turteltaub, 2004 & 2007), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Turteltaub again, 2010), and especially the box-office dud Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, 2010). Like National Treasure and its more ridiculous sequel, there is a treasure-hunting element to John Carter, which is framed by a subplot involving John’s nephew, conveniently named Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading about his uncle’s secret Barsoomian adventures in his diary. Compared to Prince of Persia, John Carter also emphasizes fate/destiny in the story and is set in a similar landscape. It’s another planet, sure, but there’s a lot of sand.

More compelling, however, is the observation that the film is another example of contemporary pop culture’s fascination with romanticizing the Confederacy, which isn’t just a dangerous practice but possibly also a morally reprehensible one. In this way, John Carter joins the ranks of the runaway successes True Blood (2008-present) on HBO, the History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys (Kevin Reynolds, 2012), AMC’s Hell on Wheels (2012-present), and even Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003) Oscar bait, among others. Maybe I am being too hard on these products since the Civil War ended 147 years ago, but anything that sugar-coats this horrific period of American history, especially when it comes to slavery, necessitates a wider perspective. In John Carter, we get the sense that he is a reluctant war hero, a rebel within an organized rebellion, who stands for nothing but having the freedom to do whatever he wants. That just happens to be gold-digging, of the literal kind. The Union Army, while doubtless infallible, is presented as a band of coercers and torturers (they killed his wife and daughter during the war). In this sense, his rugged individualism is portrayed as expressions of political revolution, grief, and capitalism, thereby romanticizing his character as fundamentally American. Even in this day and age, I recognize no part of myself in John Carter.

Like Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), John Carter leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to story, and there are many plot holes, such as how the earthling can breathe on the planet. Another element that is never explained is John’s ability to bound along the surface of Barsoom, eventually scaling impossibly tall heights, from the ground to floating warships and back again. This skill, if you will, though it is more an innate ability, certainly saves his life a number of times and ultimately empowers him to save all of Barsoom. It is what convinces the Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) to spare his life, even after having taken him prisoner. But on a more basic level, it’s clear that this “gift” likens him to Superman, and therefore in 2012, his prowess seems unimaginative to the common spectator.

How is it that there are two kinds of Martians Barsoomians, the human-like personages from Zodanga and Helium as well as the fifteen-foot-tall Tharks, who each sport four arms (and are thus computer-generated)? How did these different beings evolve? Although the Tharks more closely resemble the American Indians of the southwest, given the foreign language they speak, identification with living off the land, domestication of horse-like creatures, and complex cosmology, those from Zodanga and Helium are called “the red people.” It is a descriptive term, since their skin is incredibly tan and covered in tribal tattoos scribbled in red paint. In this way, the filmmakers have divorced the derogatory connotation from the history books on relations between colonists and Native Americans, which is disrespectful in its revisionism. I can’t recall whether or not Tharks ever have epithets wielded at them.

Burroughs probably wrote the story so that the peoples of Helium and Zodanga anatomically resemble humans on Earth, but I couldn’t help thinking how different watching the film would be if John had fallen in love with a princess of a demonstratively different race. In this post-Avatar age, it is easier than it has ever been for audiences to accept a romance between an earthling and a more exotic-looking being. Then again, my more progressive ideas on love and relationships are too out-there. After all, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) chooses to inhabit his avatar forever so that he may live as a Na’vi and continue to romance Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), thereby adopting the host culture completely.

Returning to mapping the major plot holes of John Carter, it is important to point out how the mystical energy source that Matai Shang (Mark Strong) bestows upon Sab Than presents its own set of unanswered questions. As a thern, or an angel-like being in the service of the Goddess Issus, Matai Shang ensures that everything in space and time goes according to plan. He’s a lot like John Slattery or Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011), only he is one bad dude. I wonder, then, is Matai Shang’s gift to Sab Than all part of Issus’s plan for Barsoom? If that is the case, then that makes the Goddess malevolent, especially toward the devout Tharks.

It’s also worth mentioning that Dejah Thoris, the princess from Helium, was on the verge of presenting to the science academy a device she had developed that created a synthetic form of the same energy source Sab Than abuses. (The filmmakers give the energy source a name, but I don’t remember it, and it’s not in my notes.) Her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), reluctantly arranges the marriage between Dejah and Sab Than in order to protect his kingdom. Dejah secretly runs away, looking for help, and happens upon John when he is in mid-air. Dejah reveals herself to be not just beautiful, smart, and disobedient; she is also skilled in the art of battle, kind of like Princess Leia. Sound familiar?

Anyway, part of Dejah’s narrative arc involves an existential crisis. As a scientist, she is skeptical of Issus’s existence, but when she accompanies John into a temple that harnesses the mystical energy source located on a sacred a river (a setting that recalls ancient Egyptian mythology as well as ancient Anatolian geography), she recognizes Issus exists. She also acknowledges that therns, of which she originally thought John was one, are real and use Issus’s power. Unfortunately, like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s in Prometheus, Dejah’s crisis of faith isn’t resolved; while she no longer denies Issus’s existence or writes off Tharks’ religious beliefs as legend, she does not convert. But this may be the case because she mostly throws her weight behind John, the embodiment of free will, who trumps the fate or destiny that Matai Shang seeks to carry out. This begs another question: is Issus, then, a benevolent goddess after all, if she foresaw that John would be the key to foiling Matai Shang’s destructive plot?

John Carter is overlong and rather boring. Despite its fantastical and mysterious aspects, it has no sense of levity and is completely humorless. As I previously mentioned, the expensive special effects are the opposite of spectacular, blending poorly with the live-action elements. The wooden acting from leads Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins only exacerbates this problem.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to discuss two more issues: the floating cities and the banths. In a nutshell, they represent what’s alternately intriguing and irrelevant about Burroughs’s vision today. First, John Carter’s opening looked promising, introducing the notion of floating cities on Mars so as to portray the planet’s cultures as diametrically opposed to those on Earth. Owing to my older sister’s professional interest in the history of the built environment, I am something of an amateur enthusiast when it comes to the design of cities. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t explore the implications of a floating city, particularly in terms of identity, industry, and war. I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars films in well over a decade, but I believe the metaphor that a spaceship is representative of a whole society is embedded in the story of the dueling Death Star and the Millennium Falcon.

Second, sometimes the banths, which are giant creatures that resemble the abominable snowman from Monsters, Inc. (Peter Docter, 2001) with a very bad case of the rabies, are unimaginatively called “white apes.” When you finally see an example, you understand that not only is everyone from Tars Tarkas to Dejah Thoris dead wrong when they call John a “white ape” (for they can’t possibly know that humans are descended from apes), you also realize that Burroughs, in his finite creativity, couldn’t come up with a better linguistic alternative, relying too heavily on what we know from the human, earthbound experience of the animal kingdom. Taken together, the floating cities and the banths demonstrate the limits of John Carter as a film, unable to recognize the opportunity to say something interesting about what it means to be human.

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