John Carter, “the year’s first blockbuster” I believe is how the commercials were announcing it back in the film’s theatrical run. The budget for John Carter was an estimated $250 million…drawing in an estimated $179 million. Not exactly “blockbuster” numbers…unless you’re comparing to Blockbuster Video….they had huge losses….
I had heard John Carter was based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (the creator of Tarzan) series of “Barsoom” stories. I was curious to see how a science fiction story written 100 years ago would hold up today, and also to see how well it could be adapted for the screen and today’s audiences. Now, I have a few theories why John Carter did poorly at the box office.
First, I did a little research and read the first two books in the “Barsoom” series. Barsoom is the Martian name for the planet Mars, by the way. The books were free for the Kindle, along with many other great public domain classics, so the only thing I was investing in these 100 year old stories that spawned a poorly received movie, was my time. Let me say that I loved the books. I never know if it is better to watch the movie first and then read the book, or read the book first and then watch the movie. On one hand, watching the film first, everything is a surprise to you, and you are not as critical if things are skipped or changed about. Reading the book later can give you a lot of “fill-in” knowledge. If you read first, sometimes you are disappointed at how filmmakers realize some characters; sometimes they don’t look anything like you had envisioned them in your own imagination. I usually read the book first, and in the case of John Carter, I think that was a very wise decision. The movie focuses mainly on the first Barsoom story, A Princess of Mars, but also heavily borrows characters, and ideas from the second book, Gods of Mars. Fortunately I had read the first two books, or I fear I would have been quite lost with a few of the things going on, and I think that may be why the film did poorly. I’m fairly certain that a lot of today’s audiences have not read the books. I’d wager many didn’t know there were “John Carter” books to begin with. I think that not many people knew who John Carter was, or why this movie should be important to them.
From the previews it looks to be just another film from the “Sword and Planet” subgenre of science fantasy; a rousing adventure story set on another planet,where the heroes engage their adversaries in hand to hand combat primarily with simple melee weapons such as swords, even in a setting that often has advanced technology. But John Carter is so much more, which sadly is not really evidenced by the movie, but can be clearly seen (and enjoyed) in the books. The stories focus heavily on race, class, religious deception, as well as action and romance.
In the film, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a retired US Civil War soldier from Virginia who, while fleeing Apaches in Arizona, hides in a cave where he is somehow transported to another world. Shortly into the film, it is revealed that John Carter is still on Earth, but a “copy” of him has been “telegraphed” to Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call their planet. Due to the lesser gravity of the planet, he finds he has increased strength, and phenomenal jumping abilities and agilities. Captain Carter soon meets the “green Martians”, a tribe of warlike creatures, some 10 feet tall, with four arms and two legs, with eyes on the side of their heads and large “tusks” coming from their jaw, known as “Tharks”. Taken as their prisoner, Carter is shown kindness of a sort from one of the Thark leaders, Tars Tarkas, who becomes one of the human’s greatest Martian friends, though their relationship is explained in much more detail in the book. Carter soon meets another of the native races, the “red Martians”, technologically superior, and very much humanoid in appearance. There are two warring factions of the red men, the evil Zodangans (from Zodanga) and the peaceful Heliumites (from Helium), two city states at war, with the tide turning to Zodanga’s favour as they have been given a weapon by another race of Martians, the Therns, who shape shift and work their ways from behind the scenes on both sides of the war. This is puzzling, because in the books, we don’t meet the Therns until the second book, and they don’t have any shape shifting abilities, they’re just bald….and wear blonde wigs…..Someone in Hollywood needed to spice things up a bit I guess. Actually their involvement really does complicate the story needlessly, as the first book did very well without their involvement; at least well enough to spawn 10 more stories… Anyway, fleeing the Zodangans is Dejah Thoris, a beautiful Princess of Helium (played by Lynn Collins) who Carter naturally has to save, and fall in love with. Unfortunately the only way to end the war is a forced wedding between Dejah Thoris and the leader of Zodanga, (all arranged secretly by the Therns for their own evil purposes). Battling from slavery to lead an army, John Carter fights to unite the populations of Barsoon, stop a bigger war, and save the woman he has fallen in love with.
I think that the plot was a little complicated, perhaps over-complicated in the movie by the introduction of things from Gods of Mars. I think it would have helped if somehow the filmmakers were able to explain the classes of the various natives or Barsoon better, and how their societies functioned. Burroughs in his books went to great lengths explaining the motivations of each culture, the shared religious beliefs of the planet, the language, as well as the fate of the planet in general. That is largely missing from the movie, but partially what made the books so good. From the movie we are unaware that there is a massive atmospheric station barely keeping the planet alive. We do not know why the unhatched eggs of the Tharks were eliminated. We are not explained why Carter has brought shame for returning from the River Iss. I would certainly like to watch this movie again with someone who has not read the books to learn their opinion.
I will say that the effects were 99% amazing, with my only complaint early on when John Carter first “learns to walk” on Mars. Due to the lesser gravity, the simple act of standing up can propel Carter dozens of feet in the air. As he learns to adapt and walk on the surface of his new planet, we see him stumble, and flail in the air, with what looks like bad wire-work….Other than that, the Martian landscapes are beautifully translated and rendered before us. The Tharks look amazing, as well as believable, as do the “White Apes” which I had not previously mentioned, but also inhabit the planet. The visual that I liked the most was the interpretation of the Red Martians’ flying machines. As Burroughs described in the books, they have harnessed the power of the “8th Ray”, a ray of the light spectrum that we on Earth are unaware of, that basically becomes an anti-gravity ray. As their ability to fly is derived from light, I really liked how their “wings” appeared to be shimmering and reflective. The acting was pretty good too, and I especially enjoyed Lynn Collins, bringing to life a lot of what I thought Dejah Thoris would be.
I feel I’ve rambled on enough about John Carter, I certainly do recommend it, but think it is probably enjoyed best if you have already read the source material.