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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ultimate Geek Fu Reviews John Carter

I first learned of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series from my high school math teacher. She and her husband, both of them science fiction fans, had been thrilled when Ballantine Books began releasing new paperback versions of the books. I'd read Tarzan of the Apes and The Outlaw of Torn already, so I wasn't a complete stranger to Burroughs' stories. I was intrigued by what my teacher told me about the Mars series and readily accepted when she offered to let me borrow A Princess of Mars. The following weekend, with nothing better to do, I opened the book and began reading.

First published 100 years ago with the title Under the Moons of Mars, I'm absolutely positive Burroughs had teenage boys in mind when he wrote the book. First, the world is absolutely chock full of beautiful women. Beautiful, naked women. The stories are a mix of science fiction technology -- such as the wonderful flying ships all the human races of Mars use -- and the swashbuckling excitement of ringing steel as heroes and villains cross blades with the fate of a world or, equally as important, the fate of a lovely (naked!) woman hanging in the balance. Strange, alien races with strange, alien cultures aid and hinder John Carter, gentleman of Virginia, mighty warrior of Mars, and hero of the story. What more could a teenage boy ask for? I finished the book in one day.

As luck would have it, I discovered on Monday that one of the few fellow science fiction fans in my high school had brought his two-in-one Science Fiction Book Club edition of the second and third books in the Mars series. He ended up loaning me the next six books, none of which took me more than a day to devour. That's not a particularly impressive feat as the books are fairly short, but I'd never felt so compelled by any series of books prior to these.

Put simply, I love the John Carter books. Yes, they're formulaic and lacking in any kind of humor. But they're also exciting and imaginative and, along with The Lords of the Rings which I read a few months later, the first books I really, seriously wanted to be true. So you can imagine what I felt when I heard Disney was finally going to bring John Carter to the big screen.

Trepidation. Excitement. High hopes. Low expectations.

The movie opens on Mars, Barsoom as it is known to its native races, a place the book did not take readers for several chapters. In this case, the opening sets the conflict into which John Carter will be thrust when he arrives on the planet. The city of Zodanga is conquering the entire planet. For hundreds of years, only the mighty forces of Helium stood firm against Zodanga, keeping their power in check. But now the Jeddak (the king or ruler) of Zodanga has powerful allies; strange, bald men who control great power and place some of that power in the Zodangan Jeddak's hands. With this power -- and the advice of the lead bald guy -- Zodanga will be unstoppable.

I suppose that could be considered a spoiler, but it all comes out in the first few minutes of the movie, so it's not much of a spoiler. There are actual spoilers in the next few paragraphs. Skip ahead to the "End spoilers" line if you don't want to read them.

The movie follows the novel's storyline, at least in fairly broad strokes. John Carter heads out west looking for gold and stumbles across a strange cave from which he ends up being transported to Mars. He meets and is captured by the wild green Martian tribe, the Tharks. The princess Dejah Thoris is captured by the Tharks after her airship is attacked and destroyed. John Carter escapes with the princess and the young, female green Martian, Sola, who is one of the few among her race who feels compassion.

As John Carter and Dejah Thoris begin to fall in love, our hero battles Warhoons, a different tribe of green Martians, before ending up in a place of honor in the city of Zodanga. There, Carter learns that Dejah Thoris has agreed to marry the Jeddak of Zodanga, hoping it will bring peace and allow her beloved city of Helium to survive. Determined to stop the wedding, John Carter escapes from Zodanga, journeys back to the Tharks, and enlists their aid in his cause. The Tharks attack Zodanga then move on to Helium, arriving just in time to help defend Helium against the forces of Zodanga. After defeating the Zodangans, John Carter and Dejah Thoris are married. Alas, their happiness is not eternal, as John Carter is returned to Earth where he spends his days trying to get back to Mars and the woman he loves.

Within those broadly stroked events, there are significant differences in the details of the movie compared to the details of the novel.

John Carter is a straight-forward man of action. That's what he was in the books and it's what he is in the movie. I think the movie John Carter starts out a bit more dim than the one in the books, but he gets smarter as the movie goes on. As did Boroughs in the books, the movie makes great use of Carter's amazing jumping abilities (Mars has one third the gravity of Earth). The movie John Carter turns out to have been married prior to the Civil War. During the war, his wife and child were killed; something which is used solely to draw out Carter's willingness to commit himself to Dejah Thoris and her cause. That bit was totally superfluous and something I think should have been left out.

In a move that didn't surprise me one bit, Dejah Thoris is both a beautiful warrior woman and a brilliant woman of science. In fact, she's a Regent at the Helium Academy of Science or something like that. This is a particularly tiresome thing Hollywood does any time they have a female lead character created prior to the feminist movement. That's why the Fantastic Four had Dr. Susan Storm, the Avengers (the British spies, not the American superhero team) had Dr. Emma Peel, the X-Men had Dr. Jean Grey, and, I assume, if someone ever does a movie based on the TV series I Love Lucy, we will have Dr. Lucy Ricardo (surely soon to be followed by Dr. Mary Tyler Moore). It seems that it is no longer enough for a woman to be brave, intelligent, and heroic. She must also be a brilliant scientist or lawyer or some such (no pressure, there, ladies). So, we get the brilliant Dejah Thoris, who John Carter calls "Professor" several times during the movie. Other than this bit, though, I think the movie did a good job of capturing Dejah Thoris, even if she isn't called "incomparable" even once.

But the truly major change from the book to the movie is in the source of the conflict between Zodanga and Helium. Burroughs pretty specifically spells out that all the races of Mars live for war. It's like a sport or a hobby to them. One nation is always fighting another nation and no one seems to really need a reason other than this love of war. In the movie, there is no mention of this aggressive side of Martian culture. Instead, it is the city of Zodanga that wages a war of conquest all across Mars, crushing every presumably peace-loving Martian nation in its path. It is this centuries-long war which draws in the great difference between book and movie.

The great power wielded by the Jeddak of Zodanga has been given to him by a bunch of planet-hopping, shape-shifting bald guys. We never really learn exactly who these guys are, though they are referred to as "Holy Therns" at one point. Therns are the white race John Carter eventually discovers on Mars and they are bald, but the bald guys in the movie are not native to Mars. Still, I'm going to refer to them as "Therns" for simplicity.

The Therns not only provide great power to the enemy of Helium, they also provide the method for John Carter to get from Earth to Mars. This is one change I rather approve of. In the book, there is an unexplained, mystical something which allows Carter to break free of his mortal body while, somehow, still having a mortal body. In this strange state, Carter can travel to Mars simply by willing himself to do so. It's really rather silly, when you get down to it. In the movie, Carter stumbles across one of the Therns' secret transfer points, gets hold of the alien technology used by the Therns to travel between worlds, and next thing you know he's on Mars.

Once on Mars, the movie jumps -- usually on the strength of John Carter's legs -- from action scene to action scene. There is enough time taken between action scenes to explain more or less what's going on, but it's not like you really need any kind of deep explanation. John Carter originally just wants to go home and, being short a set of ruby slippers, needs "Professor" Dejah Thoris to figure out how to use the device which brought him to Mars in the first place. Along the way, the two begin to fall in love. With the growing love, Carter's goal changes from returning to Earth to stopping the princess from marrying the Jeddak of Zodanga. Dejah Thoris is doing this to save Helium from being destroyed by Zodanga.

The wedding, of course, turns out to be a ruse by the Zodangans. While all of Helium is distracted by the wedding, the Zodangan forces attack. John Carter arrives in the nick of time, followed by an army of green Martians led by Tars Tarkas, the Jeddak of the Tharks. We get a nice, big, movie-ending battle from which the primary Thern escapes when it becomes obvious the good guys are going to win. John Carter and Dejah Thoris are married but everyone does not quite live happily ever after because the head Thern sends John Carter back to Earth on his wedding night (though not until after John and Dejah get some off-camera time in the sleeping furs). Still, though, the movie is not quite over. John Carter dedicates his life to finding another Thern planet-hopping device so he can return to Mars. His scheme for getting one turns out to be rather clever, in my opinion. The movie ends with Carter triggering the device. Roll credits.

End spoilers.

At the beginning of this review, I professed my love for the series of novels. So, what did a Burroughs fan such as myself think of the movie? Like many epic-scale action movies, I can find many faults with the movie. It has plot holes. It has things I wish had been done differently. But I can say that about many other movies, including the original Star Wars and the most recent Star Trek movie. The faults in those movies didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying them, just as the faults in John Carter don't stop me from thoroughly enjoying it.

The action scenes in John Carter are well done and generally quite exciting. The characters are likable and the script brings a sense of humor to the story which had not a single humorous line within the pages of the original novel. I watched the movie with a friend who also has a love for the Mars series. He found the movie quite as enjoyable as I did. The Boy, who only knows about John Carter because I've told him about the series, liked the movie, as well. More importantly, at the end of the movie, there was actual applause from the audience. I wouldn't need all ten of my fingers to count the number of times I've heard actual applause after a movie ended. It's worth noting, most of those movies had Star Wars or Star Trek in their titles.

John Carter has its blemishes, including the poorly selected title (I think A Princess of Mars would have been a far superior title), but the sheer sense of fun I felt watching the movie more than made up for those blemishes. I wish the movie was bringing in more money, because this Barsoom is a place I'd like to visit again.
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