based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My father and I have this tradition—we go see big, loud, action-adventure films together. My mother can’t stand the noise (she brings earplugs to films! Adorable) and she doesn’t like science fiction, so off we trot to Avatar and the like. And this is why we ended up seeing John Carter; I’d planned on seeing it anyway, and while my dad wasn’t too enthused by the prospect, there wasn’t much else among the early spring films in the theaters. Luckily, my dad ended up really enjoying it, to the point of wanting to show it to my mom. (And thus the cycle continues…)
John Carter, set in the 1880s, is the story of John Carter, adventurer, explorer, and recently deceased. When his beloved nephew Edgar arrives for the funeral, he discovers that John has left him everything—including his personal journal. In it, John tells the story of his journey to Mars (or Barsoom, as the native population calls it). Mars is a dying planet, whose remaining civilizations are at war, overseen by the mysterious and priest-like Therns. The princess scholar Dejah Thoris fears there is no way out (especially considering an impending arranged marriage), but John’s arrival might bring this dying world its only hope.
While I had been initially gung-ho to see John Carter opening weekend, Anatasia’s link to Rich Juzwiak’s thoughts on the film gave me pause. So let’s deal with the obvious—as Genevieve Valentine says in her thoughts on the film, “this film has not done much of anything to interrogate, update, or handle the racism that coats everything in the Barsoom novels”. The screenwriters seem paralyzed with their discomfort over the novel’s racism; while they take pains to distract us from Carter’s status as an ex-Confederate soldier by pointing out that he speaks Apache, his relationship with the Tharks is still reminiscent of Dances with Wolves or Avatar (although I would argue it doesn’t take that turn initially, although it definitely does later). Andrew Stanton has mentioned that he tried to avoid the subject. So there you go. If anyone has stumbled across any thoughtful, long posts on this, please let me know.
But while the racism has been awkwardly ignored, the sexism has actually been addressed—this movie even passes the Bechdel Test, when Dejah calmly surrenders herself to Sola in the middle of a battle. Dejah Thoris herself is a wonder; a scientist warrior princess who discovers a new source of energy that could help the dying Barsoom, she’s calm, capable, and intense. (There is one stumble when, trying to plead her cause to Carter, she breaks down in the middle of the desert, but that’s more a lack of build-up than a misstep.) She carries herself brilliantly, and she feels like a real, separate, whole human being. Sola, although a supporting character, is much the same; she’s Carter’s nervous friend, and she even gets her own storyline about her father to herself. They’re wonderful interpretations of the original characters, and I was delighted to see it. The rest of the cast is efficient; Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas is fantastic, and Taylor Kitsch is serviceable as Carter, although he’s the best at it at the very end of the film. Mark Strong is, as usual, mysterious and creepy. And I would be amiss if I I didn’t mention James Purefoy as a friend of Dejah’s, as well as Woola, who was a crowd favorite at my showing.
As an adaptation, Chabon, Stanton, and Andrews happily pull from the first few Barsoom novels to create a swashbuckling hero story that’s a shade or two more complex. I was delighted to discover that the Therns aren’t bad guys dying to destroy Mars (the fact that the planet is literally dying is treated with remarkably nonchalance here), but rather beings that thrive on destruction and manage warfare. It’s a smart move to pit John Carter, a man of violence, against villains that treat violence and war so off-handedly. I will admit to spending most of the movie squinting for any significant signs of Chabon’s hand in the script, which comes out in the remarkably neat and clever end. The pace clips along nicely, although it gets a bit episodic in the middle. Mostly, the movie wants to get to its ambitious and splashy action sequences, which are genuinely thrilling. The superjump, however, does kill the drama of a montage where Carter finally resolves his guilt over the death of his family by sacrificing himself to save Dejah and Sola; as the film cuts between burying his family and Carter tearing through an army of Tharks, the superjump seems a bit… silly.
For the most part, it’s a solid action picture with incredible production design. Despite the fact that the works Barsoom have influenced are already writ large in the speculative film imagination, it doesn’t look or feel like anything else. The deserts of Barsoom are gorgeous and starkly bright; the costume design downgrades the nudity of the original to scant armor; and the cinematography occasionally takes a chance or two. It’s a very attractive film to watch. (Of course, Lynn Collins’ arms certainly help—I walked out of that theater feeling more noodle-armed than ever…)
Bottom line: A solid action picture with incredible production design, but while it does deal with the sexism of the source text, it tries to sweep the racism under the rug and doesn’t really succeed. If you’d like.
I saw this film in theaters.