John Carter and his blue rays are now on Blu-Ray, although you'd be forgiven for not having noticed ...
I love John Carter.  There, I’ve said it.  Well, written it.  I've waited over thirty-five years for the books I loved as a child to arrive on my preferred medium ... The screen.  And, damnit, it was worth the wait!  You’ll presumably proceed with reading this or not depending on your own thoughts on the film in relation to mine.  We’ve got a long journey together (yes, another one) so, y’know … I’m giving you an out here.

If you don’t think you’ll make it … Go and watch Spider-Man or something.

Okay?  So, where was I?  Oh yeah, pledging my troth to John Carter.  Didn’t love the title, mind.  If Disney were so terrified of the dreaded ‘M’ word (which they themselves spoiled with the dark and troubling mega-flop Mars Needs Moms in 2011) they should have called the film ‘Barsoom’.  That would have at least intrigued the uninitiated and deeply pleased the likes of me.  But no, the infinitely wise marketing people at the House of Mouse decided that the very best thing to do was shave off the bit of the title that made the film seem exotic and magical and, instead, make it sound like a George Clooney movie.  (Nothing wrong with that, by the way, it’s just not for the same audience).  As Carter himself says towards the end of the film “John Carter of Mars sounds much better”.

When this news broke, it did not bode well.  Sadly, it was the first inkling of problems with the film which became evident with the marketing.

The early teaser posters for the film had that magical, intriguing air that the books exude, combined with an elegant beauty.  The ‘JCM’ logo was perfect and the landscape image below filled me with a childish joy I hadn’t felt since looking, long and hard at the Lord of the Rings posters ten years ago.  

The full-size version of this is ginormous so please have a click and a damn good look.
However.  This is an only semi-official poster.  It was produced by ‘Mondo’ and given away free to those attending the initial midnight IMAX screening of the film.  The proper posters are far less exotic.

See, once they dropped the ‘Of Mars’ it all changed.  The logo became meaningless and we were presented with garish posters which told us nothing.  They didn’t fill me with excitement and hope and open-minded questions like posters should.  And they're orange!?

Then there were the trailers.  None of Disney’s trailers really quite did the film justice.   Nine months before its release we had this teaser … Which works nicely enough, capitalising on the relationship the film’s director had established during the making of Wall.E (2008) with Peter Gabriel.  Exotic, subtle and complex music suggests an exotic, subtle and complex film, yes?

A fan-edit seemed to better sum up the dramatic and epic feel of the film:

Ironically, Kerry Conran (the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - 2004) put together a pitch proposal for the film when he was scheduled to direct it (that was before Robert Rodriguez, who was before Jon Favreau, who was before Andrew Stanton).  This pitch is, if you'll pardon the pun, pitch perfect.  

Importantly, it mentions Tarzan!  Why did none of the other marketing do this?  Surely the corporation that now control ERB's properties couldn't have had an objection to one being evoked to help sell another?

Whaddya mean this looks like Avatar?
Whatever the problem, subsequent trailers succeeded in making the film look like Prince of Persia.  They made it look like both The Phantom Menace and The Attack of the Clones.  They made it look like a pale rip-off of any number of recent films which is, of course, terribly sad … Since Burroughs’ Barsoom predates all of them.

The publication of A Princess of Mars as a serial in 1912 - and a novel in 1917 (from which the above cover comes) - heralded a new type of uncomplicated hero who was brave, romantic, incorruptible and, well, super!  Burroughs clearly had an influence on the comic strips Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, 20 years later, and Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, a few years after that.  

And we all know just what an affect all that had on young Steven Spielberg and, particularly, George Lucas.  So, in a very real sense, we can say that, without Burroughs’ Barsoom, there would have been no Star Wars.  And without Star Wars … The last 35 years of Hollywood production would have been very different!

All that said – It is worth noting that Burroughs’ work was not entirely without precedent.  Novelist and Burroughs biographer Richard A. Lupoff notes in his wonderful biography of Burroughs: Master of Adventure, that A Princess of Mars bears at least a passing resemblance to Edwin Lester Arnold's 1905 novel Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, which you can read for free on-line in its re-titled rendition: Gulliver of Mars at Project Gutenberg, here.

Because of the eccentricities of international copyright law, you can also read all of A Princess of Mars on-line, also free, here.

As the Kerry Conran video illustrates, it is confusing that it has taken quite this long for Barsoom to reach our screens.  Yes, I am aware of the 2009 straight-to-DVD cheapie Princess of Mars, which capitalised on the work falling into public domain in the States ... But even that was a late-comer ... Given that the first proposed adaptation was in 1936 - when the live-action, Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films were at the peak of their popularity - Disney and Looney Tunes’ animator, Bob Clampett, worked on a proposed animated adaptation of the Carter books.  Details about that can be found here on the official Edgar Rice Burroughs magazine website, and the few moments of surviving footage is introduced by Clampett himself here:

Ironically, five years later, Dave and Max Fleischer succeeded in creating an animated series based on Superman comics, and made them in the realistic style Clampett intended for Carter.  In case you’re interested, you can see all 17 of those Superman films in their entirety for free, gratis and nothing, here.  Make time for them, they are quite extraordinary, and make you wonder just how marvellous Clampett's plans might have been if they'd reached fruition.

Here's one of the early ones, just to whet your appetite:

Anyway ... Back to the tale of someone else who seems able to leap tall buildings in a single bound ... John Carter.

I feel that a lot of the issues I have with this film adaptation, stem from the baggage of previous failed attempts.  The script for this version is based on several pre-existing scripts – particularly one written even before Kerry Conran's involvement, by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott back in 1991 when both of them were at the beginning of an astonishing script-writing career (just look-up their credits and admit you’re impressed!)  Unfortunately, the script we have now, a mosaic of several scripts, patched together by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, too freely adapts some parts of the novel and sticks too closely to others. 

The very opening – Which brings us in on a battle taking place in the skies of Barsoom - focuses on Sab Than (Dominic West).  Since he is our first glimpse of a Barsoomian, it is not unnatural for us to assume he will be the hero of the story.  But he isn’t.  Indeed, he will develop into the villain.  We don’t meet the ‘good’ Martians at this point.

Then we swoop over to Earth and we are introduced to an earnest, young Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara).  Is he the hero?  No.  Indeed, he is informed that his uncle, John Carter, the character we are waiting to meet … is dead.

Then we launch into flashbacks, to finally meet John Carter.  But, is he the Barsoomian warrior?  No … He’s trying to avoid being drafted into the Cavalry (not very successfully).

These early chapters, detailing his Wild West exploits, were necessary in the novel one hundred years ago, that’s what readers of pulp fiction were accustomed to.  They expected to read the exploits of cowboys.  The cowboy is the original American hero … His presence can be felt in the noir detective, the renegade cop and the modern action hero.  Wherever there is a man who takes a stand, alone against evil, there you have the iconic fictional cowboy.

However, a century on, when the Western genre is as good a dead – at least in its horse-riding, dust-busting original form - these early establishing scenes are time-consuming and confusing.  As scene-setting and character-formation, these first ten minutes form a perfectly fine ‘Foreword’, and would have made a nice addition here on the BD as part of a ‘Director’s Cut’, adding texture for the benefit of those viewers who are already fans of the film.  

But including them in the theatrical version means they simply serve to hobble the movie in its all-important opening-reel.  They are an amusing diversion, well-shot, well-edited, well-performed by actors who would otherwise have not appeared in the film,  But they are a diversion none-the-less.  Yes, they book-end very nicely with the ‘Afterword’, which neatly solves the riddles surrounding the mysterious Earth-bound Carter and draw a line under the films narrative.  But was that conclusion sufficient motivation for the much-delayed introduction?  I confess I think not.

These scenes are designed to strike the contrast between Earth and Mars.  Despite the fact that we know (from our American movies) that it only ever rains in England ... Earth (i.e. America) is initially shown as cold, tinged blue and marred by bucketing rain.  This is clearly intended to illustrate the vast difference between our wet, blue planet and Mars' arid, sun-scorched deserts.  However ... The last thing Carter does on Earth is ride out - with the cavalry - into the Arizona desert, where the sedimentary layers in the distant bluffs are familiar from a million cowboy movies.  When he wakes up on 'Barsoom', he is in the middle of a (admittedly, yellow) desert and away in the distance ... Exactly the same kind of rock formations.  So, our first glimpse of the Martian surface is at pains to make it look like Earth.  A confusing choice!

All the first-time viewer actually needs is to see Carter finding The Cave, teleport himself to Barsoom and find the place clearly, profoundly alien.  Job done:  On with the show.

As an aside – I think the idea of a teleportation device to travel to-and-from planets is a much better notion than the astral-projection-out-of-body-experience Burroughs employed in the novel.

So, Carter has finally arrived on Mars, with its solar-powered steam-punk flying greenhouse airships, henna tattoos, leather battle-harnesses-and-armour-in-lieu-of-clothes and, of course, the tall, lean, tusky Tharks – All of which are absolutely bang-on.  Exactly as I imagined they would be, 35 years ago when I was voraciously reading the books. The set design and costume design here is delightful.  Yes, it's somewhat similar to last year's Thor (which, despite what I said here, is gorgeous when unshackled from the chains of 3D) but the film-makers here weren't to know that when they were hard at work.

What was less in-keeping with the magic of those books – is Barsoom itself.  One is forced to wonder why they settled for filming in Utah.  They have created CGI characters, CGI cities and CGI flying ships … Why could they have not at least enhanced their locations with some more CGI?  The sky, particularly, is wrong.  It is constantly telling you that you’re really on Earth.   

This picture is also a whopper - click and enjoy.  That's the real Mars, people.  Be amazed!
See, this is what the sky really looks like on Mars – thanks to this mind-expanding image recently published by NASA and taken by its Mars Rover (a sort-of real-world Wall.E!)  You can find out all about this incredible image from NASA, here.

However, in the illustrations I remember from the books, the sky was darker than ours.  From the very beginning, the images associated with the books had a raw, muscular energy and a dark, gothic edge and the sky was dark.  Sometimes a rusty brown, sometimes the colour of blood … But never blue.  Look at these, the very earliest illustrations:

There is a gallery of these extraordinary early images, from several of the artists (particularly J. Allen St. John) who brought Burroughs’ vision to life in those early years, in this lovely Golden Age comics-book blog.  Of course, by the time I came to read the books in the 1970s, the covers looked more like this …

And, more recently, they’ve looked like this, where, yes, the sky is blue … But look at the landscape, with its exotic city on the horizon and its two moons.  It just looks alien!

In the movie … Barsoom looks like this.  Spectacular, no doubt.  Representative of an exhausted, dying planet?  Certainly.  But alien?  No.  It looks like Utah. 

Which is not surprising … Since it is Utah.  Now, Utah is spectacular and extraordinary and beautiful in its own worn-out, bony way … But we’ve seen John Wayne lead cavalry charges through it so many times, we almost expect to see the Indians still riding across it, as they were before Carter hid in The Cave. 

And that sky?  In these days of digital colour grading, the ochre of the real thing, or the clotted-blood of the Frazetta paintings would be relatively easy to achieve.  As would the ruined cities on the horizon.

If Barsoom is dying, we need to see a world that looks ancient and complicated and steeped in long-forgotten secrets.  Peter Jackson managed it with Lord of the Rings … But he was thinking outside the American box.  Yes, as with (particularly) The Fellowship of the Ring, we get ancient architectural artefacts of lost, forgotten civilisations (we are told several times that Zodanga has been waging war against  ... well, everyone else, for over a thousand years) but they are blended into the landscape.  Towers and cities and monuments of sandstone, all weathered and worn so badly that they are all-but indistinguishable from those rocky bluffs from which they once rose.  I didn't even notice them the first time I saw the film!  Maybe if Stanson and crew had shot the Barsoom scenes in the heart of Australia, or Namibia … we would have had some truly alien-looking landscapes.  Maybe if they had made the ruins look less like very Earthly Egyptian or Sumerian ruins, they would have made more of an impression.  But all this is speculation and apropos of nothing, since that is not what they did.  

So, as relatively disappointing as it is, we are finally on Mars.  But, again, the story stutters rather than getting stuck in.  We have been introduced to Ned Burroughs and his world, then to young John Carter and his, now we have to adjust to this new environment of Tharks, Helium, Radium, Deja Thoris, Therns and … Alright, already, too many introductions! 

The tribal Thark people are presented very much as I remember them from the book, noble and savage, and the Performance-Capture animation featuring Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton is faultless.  Their world stands in stark contrast to the opulent technologically advanced cities where the tattooed humanoid Martians are played by British character actors to a man!  Texan, Lynn Collins, who plays The Princess, Deja Thoris (after whom the original novel was named) joins in by assuming a convincing English accent. 

So, as I always suspected when reading the books … They speak Barsoomian with an English accent!  Well, why not?  For sixty years we’ve been watching Roman epics like Quo Vadis?( (1961) and Ben-Hur (1959) full of centurions and senators speaking Latin with American accents. 

"What ho ... As we Martians say."
Here in the cities, the politics and the power-playing is to the fore.  The Zodangans and Heliumites are engaged in an arms race and, thanks to the intervention of the mysterious Therns, the Zodangans are now winning.  They have an ultimate weapon.  So, as a political move, Deja is to be married off to Jeddak Sab Than (who we met briefly earlier), in order to protect her now-defeated city of Helium from falling prey to his city of Zodanga.  It gradually becomes clear that our sympathies should lie with her and her truculent father rather than with McNulty and his equally tattooed people.  This takes a while, since we met him long before we met her and her father.  Also, the fact that their tattoos are, at least at face value, identical, makes it harder to parse that they are sworn enemies.

Now, inevitable comparisons notwithstanding, Deja is no passive Dale Arden type, waiting to be rescued.  She, instead takes her fate in her own hands, decides that she doesn’t want to be married off, and heads off into the wilderness, leading her own mini-rebellion and expertly wielding her sword.  There is a delightful moment when Carter takes her sword and tells her to stand behind him, only to have her retrieve her sword and defend him.  In this respect, she is much more the template for Princess Leia!

And so, finally, Deja and John’s paths cross, he is recognised as a formidable warrior by all and sundry and we’re off and running.  Or jumping. 

It says something about our still-paternalistic society that Hollywood didn’t see how anyone would take to a film named A Princess of Mars … Because they have spent some time marketing one-dimensional rom-coms and teen-flicks with words like ‘Princess’ in the title.  Never-the-less, Collin’s performance as the titular Princess is the key to the film working, at least as a character piece.  Carter’s respect for her (and fear of her) fires up emotions in him that have lain dormant.  A good half-way through the film we get a moment when he realises he has emotions for Deja, which sparks memories of his Earth-bound family … Burned to death in some unexplained atrocity.  Suddenly we understand why he spends the films’ first act frowning, why he is so truculent and why.  Suddenly he has something he is prepared to fight for.  The moment when he launches himself, solo, at a several-thousand-strong hoard of rampaging Warhoon warriors, in order to protect Deja, it is spine-tingling.  Aided, in no small part, by some extraordinary editing and the soaring, soulful score of the vastly-over-productive Michael Giacchino.
Swelling the ranks of the Brit thesps in the film is Mark Strong, Hollywood’s bad-guy du jour.  He plays a magic monk with the vaguely Oriental sounding name of Matai Shang (who is actually imported from Burroughs' second Mars book, The Gods of Mars – 1913 – to help give this film some structure).  He is a puppet-master, manipulating the Zodangans for his own nefarious ends.  As he explains “We don’t cause the destruction of worlds, we just manage it.  Feed off it, you might say.”

Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars was, at its heart, a romance.  And I mean that in every sense of the word.  Yet, here, the relationship between Deja and John seems oddly platonic … Like children, they charge around the desert, getting into scrapes, having adventures and rescuing each other (this version of Deja stresses her sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves feminist credentials – which were there in the original novels, if not quite so overtly as we see them).  Then, suddenly, spontaneously, they decide that they love each other at the end and it turns into what The Princess Bride’s Fred Savage would refer to as ‘a kissing book’.  Well where did that come from?  Oh, I know …. Narrative necessity!

Something they have added to the novel is humour.  Not a trace of self-mockery or irony will you find in a Burroughs book, they are terribly po-faced (which is why they are perfect for earnest young boys to read in their pre-teen or early teen years).  These days, as our culture sucks the last drags from the fag-end of Post-Modernism, we need to have our pastiches be laced with humour.  It elevates a camp fantasy conceit and makes it palatable for a modern audience.  Like most modern animators, Stanton is a master of that and you can see his Pixar credentials particularly in his handling of the Woola character – who is the endearing frog-dog pet and is simply delightful!  There is also a very brave red herring in the thirds act which is as hilarious as it is ridiculous!

Sit ... Heel ... Play dead!
The movie is relatively light on big name stars.  Where they might have cast someone like Anthony Hopkins as Tardos Mors (Deja’s dad) they went for Ciarán Hinds.  An excellent performer who can bring real gravitas and threat to a performance … But, let’s be honest, he’s not a star.  Indeed, the only real star in there is Willem Dafoe and, in this film, he is neither playing the villain, nor is he actually on screen.  So, that leaves all the weight of the film on the shoulders of TV’s Taylor Kitsch and the afore-mentioned Ms. Collins. 

While she acquits herself marvellously; he simply isn't charismatic enough to carry a film on his own, which is essentially what he is required to do.  He has the physique and the ability to hold together a good performance.  He manages to give Carter some depth in the scenes where he is feeling fatalistic … He can even do the comedy … but, for me, he lacks that spark of likeability that instantly made Hugh Jackman, Gerard Butler and Chris Hemsworth stars in similar circumstances.

Yet, despite all this, the magic of the film still comes through.    The film has a beauty to it and a gloss of gosh-wow magic that few movies these days achieve. 

Now, remember at the top I said I love this film?  Well, I’ve spent a couple of thousand words picking holes in it since, so you may have had chance to forget I wrote that.  But I do.  I love it. 

Whilst I sat in the cinema jotting down all the plot-holes, location issues, lumpy characterisation and pacing problems I was still grinning.  Ordinarily, I would have been bored by a film that takes so long to get its plot underway but, here, everything is done so well, the visuals are so beautiful and the feel of the piece is just so magical that I had to forgive it.  Had to.

The look and feel of the world is totally compelling.  No, it isn’t right … It isn’t what I expected … It has clearly been compromised … But the airships, the cities, the costumes, those gorgeous tattoos … It is all just so exotic and magical that I was filled with an unrestrained childish joy seeing all these things I’d had rattling around in the back of my mind for more than thirty years suddenly up there on screen.  Maybe their version is right … Maybe it’s my memory and nostalgia goggles that need adjusting.

See ... Look at that city.  Wouldn't you wanna live there if you could?
There was an innocence to Burroughs’ work and the spirit that almost childish vision of Mars is captured.  I have always felt that the magic of the Harry Potter books and films seemed hollow and apologetic and the actors seemed faintly embarrassed waving around their twigs and uttering Pig Latin.   But not so this kind of magic.  This is simple, direct story-telling.  This is a vision of Mars, divorced entirely of any attempt to create reality.  Burroughs had obviously read Percival Lowell’s thoughts on the canals of Mars (published in the self-explanatory Mars and its Canals in 1906).  This was an entirely serious theory that Mars held not only life, but sophisticated life that had irrigated the land.  The notion dated back to 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli noted ‘canali’ on the Martian surface.  Unfortunately, this word – which means ‘channel’ - was mis-translated into English as ‘canal’, and so I wonderfully fanciful theory was born in Lowell’s mind.

I know ... Canals!  What a mook.
Burroughs didn’t  care whether Percival Lowell’s canals really existed on Mars … He couldn’t conceive of a time when we would be able to send a craft up there and drive around on the surface taking and sending home extraordinarily beautiful photographs.   He simply saw Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour, as the perfect place to play out his romantic, adventures.

For him, the mere thought of the canals and what they suggested about the people of Mars sent him off into wild flights of fantasy that logic, science and credibility would only have hindered.  It’s exactly that kind of unshackled imagination that creates iconic fictions which pass down through generations, inspiring fans, copyists and adapters for decades on end.  It’s the kind of imagination which would, very soon, imagine a baby brought up in a jungle by apes.  But that, as they say, is a different story. 

Within two weeks' of John Carter's release, Disney threw in the towel - conceding that the film was a massive flop, the worst it had ever suffered (worse than Mars Needs Moms) and that they would waste no more resources on it.  that is why the DVD and Blu-Ray release was handled as a matter of contractual necessity, with no trace of fanfare.  There is now no chance that the promised trilogy of Barsoom movies will materialise ... Mars is a dead planet!  We will never get to explore the rest of this exotic landscape.

But I still don't think we've heard the last of Barsoom.  I think the fans will stay with this film ... They will nurture it like a precious flame, protecting it and keeping it alive.  Personally, I’d still love to see the version Andrew Stanton had in mind before Disney got cold feet, pushed the release date back a year and started interfering. Who knows?  It took twenty years to get the definitive version of Apocalypse Now and thirty years for Blade Runner, but it happened.  I have hope. I waited thirty-five years for this version ... I’m patient ... If necessary, I'll wait thirty-five years for the next. 

For the technical specs and a full run-down of the extras on the Blu-Ray of John Carter, why not wander over and glance at the review I wrote for What Culture, here?

1 comment:

  1. What about the fantastic ending of the best I've seen in any movie. Ghost and Gone with the Wind come to mind. This is a great movie !