Before Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker…
I was born about a half-century too late to have been among the first generation to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” books, but my own first inklings of them came via Carl Sagan’s landmark 1980 PBS TV series, “COSMOS.” The late pop scientist reminisced about how his own passion for Mars largely sprang from reading the “John Carter” novels as a kid. The young Sagan used to stand in an open field, spreading his arms wide, and imploring what he believed to be the planet Mars to transport him there. As Sagan lamented, it never worked. However, Sagan’s passion to study the real Mars began with those books, the first of which (“Princess of Mars”) was written 22 years before Sagan’s birth in 1934. Those books would also inspire my favorite author, Ray Bradbury (“The Martian Chronicles”), as well as the “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” comic strips, which began in 1929 and 1934, respectively.
Growing up on a steady diet of “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and even the 1979 TV revamp of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” I was fortunate to have a likeminded eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Kelly, who encouraged me to pursue literary sci-fi as well. Through those sci-fi classics, I discovered the origins of so many concepts I’d loved in movies and TV shows (time travel, faster-than-light spaceships, moon bases, etc). I then furthered my exploration of Bradbury, as well as Robert Heinlen, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). Burroughs was an author I’d associated more with the jungle heroics of Tarzan than with sci-fi, but Mr. Kelly assured me that Burroughs’ “John Carters of Mars” books (and his “Venus” series) had many of the familiar elements I enjoyed in latter-day space operas.
*******BARSOOM-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*******
In the pages of “Princess of Mars,” I read about veteran soldier John Carter, who is displaced from a civil war on Earth to a civil war on the planet Mars (known by its natives as Barsoom). The southern gentleman soldier is befriended by a tall, green, six-limbed warrior named Tars Tarkas—whose race of tharks are a clear parallel to the Apache Native Americans of Carter’s own world. The tharks are generally considered inferior by the red-complected humanoids of Barsoom, until they rally to the cause of Princess Deja Thoris (from the city-state of Helium) to defeat their common enemies and unite the planet. Change a few names and this story could’ve easily been set in the Star Wars universe. Despite knowing full well that Mars was not favorable to human life, I found my belief well-suspended as I lost myself in the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planet-spanning mythology.
Decades later and well into my forties, I heard that Disney’s long-gestated movie adaptation was finally debuting in the spring of 2012. There were some nasty rumors surrounding acrimony between the director Andy Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) and Disney, but I didn’t care. I rushed to see the film in a nearly-empty 3D IMAX theater. As a fan of the books, I appreciated its fidelity to the source material, though as a film fan, I also recognized a few flaws with this big-budget Disney adaptation.
For this review, I used the magic of my portable digital projector and my 7 ft. collapsible home movie screen in order to transport me back to Barsoom…
“John Carter” (Of Mars–dammit)
The first surprise came early on, as the Disney films logo is bathed in the reddish glow of a Martian skyscape, which was a nice touch (even if actual Martian sunsets are blue…). The film was cowritten by director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews (“Brave”) and Michael Chabon (“Star Trek: Picard”). The low-key musical score by Michael Giacchino (2009’s “Star Trek”) sets the table for a bit of narration, read by costar Willem Dafoe, which brings us up to speed on the state of the movie’s mythical Mars, aka “Barsoom“…a dying planet embroiled in war (appropriate, since the name “Mars” comes from the Roman god of war).
Note: My biggest gripe of the opening is that the title, for reasons unknown, dropped the “Of Mars” suffix from the movie’s original title. The line is even spoken aloud by the hero near the end of the film, yet Disney (which wasn’t quite the Star Wars/Marvel money-printing machine it is today) felt it was a good idea to make the movie’s title sound like a biopic of an insurance salesman. John Carter’s identity with Mars is as strong as Kevin Costner’s identity with his found Lakota family in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves,” yet we didn’t see that film retitled as “John Dunbar.” Dropping “Of Mars” from “John Carter” almost reeks of deliberate sabotage by Disney, which reportedly had many conflicts with director/writer Stanton during the making of the movie (there are a million YouTube videos on that very subject, so I won’t get into that can of worms here and now…).
The advanced city-state of “Helium” is under attack by the flying infantry of Sab Than (Dominic West), the “Jeddak” (ruler) of Zoganda, a mobile city which uproots and annexes new territories through sheer will and military might. These two nations of humanoid ‘Red Martians’ have been in a stalemated civil war for over a millennium. As Than’s forces close in on Helium’s defenses, they are ensnared in a Martian dust storm. It’s here where the tides of the war change…
Note: Martian sandstorms are a thing. They sometimes blanket the entire planet in clouds of rusted dust. However, the real-life atmospheric pressure of Mars is so low (about a hundredth of Earth’s sea level pressure) that even the most ferocious dust storms on Mars would only equal the force of a gentle breeze on Earth. Movies like “John Carter,” and even the otherwise scientifically accurate “The Martian” (2015) often exaggerate the storms’ severity for dramatic purposes.
Aboard Than’s solar-powered battle ship, we see invading Helium forces mysteriously wiped out by mysterious blue energy before Than’s disbelieving eyes. Time itself seems to stop, as the Jeddak is met by a group of bald, seemingly omniscient beings known as the Therns–half-mythical demigods who often play war games with ‘mortals’ much as we would toy with chess pieces. Thern leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong) offers the barbaric Than their advanced technology, which clings to his arm and possesses him, allowing him to project energy beams from his body at will.
Note: One of the inherited problems with the story is that many of the names used sound too alike (Therns, Than, Tharks, Thoris, Tars Tarkas, etc). Granted, this is a legacy problem from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, not a unique issue to this screenplay. “John Carter” is arguably too faithful to its 100-year old source at times.
The shortsighted Than immediately attempts to double-cross his benefactors, who effortlessly deflect his attempt at treachery. Realizing he can’t outfight them, Than agrees to an alliance with the advanced beings, not realizing (or caring) that he’s being used by them. The promise of someday ruling Mars is more than enough to sate the brutal Than for now. As time resumes its normal pace, the shapeshifting Therns appear as ship’s crew to avert suspicion as they whisper directions in his ear. Without hesitation, Than uses his newfound power to bring Helium’s defenses to their collective knees…
Note: The Therns, like the Q in “Star Trek,” or the meddlesome Greek gods in “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), have no real stake in the outcome (no “dog in the fight” as Matai later quips to Carter). To them, all of war is simply an exercise in academic strategy… especially when using a race facing its own doom by environmental collapse (an analog of our own pending doom by human-made climate change).
We then cut to 1881 New York, as wealthy war veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is outrunning a mysterious pursuer in a busy, rainy city street. He wishes to send an urgent telegram to his nephew “Ned”, better known to the audience as future author Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), and pays the Western Union telegrapher handsomely for his trouble. It’s clear from the way Carter’s pursuer seems to disappear into the crowd that he is also a shapeshifting Thern, the kind we just saw aiding the bad guys on Mars. Carter’s telegram to his young nephew is successfully sent and the young man arrives in New York sometime later.
Young Burroughs is met by his uncle’s lawyer Dalton (Nicholas Woodeson), who regretfully informs the future writer that his wealthy, eccentric uncle John passed away and is interred in a custom-made tomb on the estate. The tomb curiously opens only from the inside, per his rich client’s wishes; it also keeps Carter’s unsealed body within, with the words “Inter Mundos” (“Between Worlds”) in bold letters grafted over the entrance. Edgar is puzzled by his uncle’s unusual funeral demands, as Dalton has yet another mysterious item to give to him…the late Carter’s diary, which (like the tomb) is also locked, pending personal delivery to Edgar’s eyes only. Dalton never asked his rich client why he made these peculiar demands, and he’s resisted all curiosity to read the diary, which he gives to Edgar, along with the key…
Note: These bookending sequences set in late 19th century New York are a conceit of the movie’s screenplay which deftly mix fiction with Burroughs’ own life, much in the same way that “Time After Time” (1979) and George Pal’s “The Time Machine” (1960) blended H.G. Wells’ fictional (and unnamed) Time Traveler with Wells himself–remaking the novelist as a closet inventor who actually created the time machine to inspire his own 1895 novel (!). I get why the writers of the movie created these bookends, and I approve wholeheartedly.
Edgar begins reading the diary in earnest, which chronicles (via flashbacks) the story of a post-Civil War John Carter, living in the Arizona Territories of 1868. The former confederate soldier lost his wife and young daughter to the war, and has since become a pathetic alcoholic who whittles away his life searching for rumored gold in the desert. Carter has resisted repeated attempts by a very tenacious Union Army recruiter, Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), to put his excellent soldiering skills to use in slaughtering native Apaches. Carter wants no part of the army or in killing Apaches—he just wants to find his gold and be left alone. In a hilarious montage of repeated arrests and escapes, Carter is finally dragged out to the desert by Powell’s men to face the Apaches, when he turns on his captors and makes a run for a rumored ‘cave of the spider,’ where his gold awaits. Inside the cave, Carter finds strange hieroglyphs… and a prodigious quantity of raw gold in the ceilings of the cave. In the melee of Carter’s escape, Powell finds the would-be deserter, and threatens to shoot him until a Thern appears unexpectedly. The startled Thern seems just as surprised to see Carter in the cave before the former soldier instinctively shoots the being dead. The dead Thern carried a glowing blue amulet, which Carter takes for himself—just as it activates.
Note: Bit of a surprise for me seeing Bryan Cranston in such a small role (I know; there are no small roles; only small actors, yada, yada…). Cranston would also class up 2014’s “Godzilla” as well, with his role in that film being heavily promoted (despite his relatively limited screen time). I assume his roles in these films were brief due to his filming obligations with his then-hit TV series. I actually got to see Bryan Cranston do a live talk back in 2017; I even bought an autographed copy of his book, “A Life In Parts.” Very interesting guy…
Carter then finds himself in a strange desert under a golden hued sky. The amulet falls from his possession as he attempts to stand up and walk. For some reason, each step causes him to catapult high into the air like a pole vaulter. The very gravity of this desert is foreign to him. Looking up into the sky, he sees two small moons overhead. He involuntarily leaps upon the side of a hill, where he sees a glass-encased hatchery of eggs… eggs which release hoards of green, six-limbed, reptilian infants. Carter soon realizes he is not alone with these hatchlings…
Note: John’s exaggerated leaps through the air, accomplished with digitally erased wirework, aren’t terribly convincing as a simulation of Mars’ real-life low gravity (only about a third of Earth’s), but once again, the movie’s Barsoom is not the real-life Mars being explored by rovers, landers and orbiters today. This is a fantasy world imagined by an early 20th century writer. These fanciful conceits of the story may be one of the reasons modern audiences were turned off by the film—too much suspension of disbelief required, especially for a planet which is now better understood than our own ocean floors.
A very confused Carter is approached by an adult version of the six-limbed hatchlings he just saw–an eight foot tall, twin tusked “Thark” named Tars Tarkas (voiced and motion captured by Willem Dafoe). The alien warrior reaches out to the displaced earthling, as he is impressed by his ability to ‘sak’ (jump). Through a series of gestures and words, Carter learns the alien’s name and identifies himself as “John Carter of Virginia.” Tars soon mistakenly begins to refer to Carter as “Vor-jeeen-yaaa.” And a nickname is born. We also learn that Tars is the Jeddak of his people (the word used by both red and green Martians to describe a leader). Pocketing Carter’s amulet, Tars orders his arriving army not to fire on Virginia, as he reaches out to the jumping Earth creature as a hopeful ally. The Thark scouts then remove the hatchlings from their nursery and brutally kill the ones who failed to hatch on time, leaving “none for the white apes.” John wonders aloud just where the hell is this place…
Note: Willem Dafoe (“The Last Temptation of Christ”) is a very talented actor whom I’ve been a fan of for decades. Dafoe also did the voice of the bitter aquarium fish “Gill” in the Andrew Stanton’s Pixar/Disney fish tale, “Finding Nemo” (2003). He also narrates “John Carter” as well. Dafoe’s performance as Tars Tarkas is, without a doubt, my favorite of the entire film.
The movie then cuts to the elite city of Helium, a bastion of civilization on Barsoom, where we meet the “Princess of Mars” herself; the stunning, raven-haired, blue-eyed Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), daughter of the city-state’s aging jeddak, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds). Deja is fine-tuning a speech which will unveil her latest discovery; a generator that emits a “ninth ray” beam exactly like the one given to Than by the Therns (the many soundalike names get very confusing). Deja believes the beam can use its energy to create and build, though Helium’s warriors only see its potential as a weapon in their thousand-year war with the nomadic city of Zoganda. During the demonstration of Deja’s device, a disguised Thern casually creates a malfunction, causing the assembled group to doubt Deja’s new machine. A Helium general then interrupts the briefing to tell Tardos that Zogandan forces have broken through Helium’s defense perimeter and are threatening the city. Deja is then mortified to learn that her own father has considered an offer from Jeddak Than—Than would agree to unite peaceably with Helium if Deja agrees to marry him. Deja refuses her father’s demand, hopeful they can find another way to repel the imminent invasion…
Note: While the actors hit their marks and deliver their lines well enough, there is a certain distance with the Red Martian characters. They are very regally written, and played at an arm’s length; this never allows them (or the actors playing them) to come alive as living, breathing people. Most of them often come across as pompous and inflexible–much like the Kryptonians of 1978’s “Superman”. As a result, it’s difficult for an unfamiliar audience to work up much sympathy for them or their plight.
Meanwhile, the Tharks’ new superman Carter is being ‘cared for’ by a female Thark named Sola (Samantha Morton), who is currently charged with feeding the new hatchlings as well–who are being kept in the same stable as Carter. He’s also ‘adopted’ by a bulky, lightning fast, dog/reptile creature called a calot. After drinking some Martian milk, Carter begins to hear and speak in the Martian language. Soon, Carter and Sola are able to communicate freely with each other (like the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). He is then met again by Tars, who is finally able to ask—more like demand–that his new recruit use his astonishing abilities to aid the Tharks. Once again, Carter is being drafted for his talents, just as he was by Col. Powell on Earth. Left with little choice, John relents, and is made an honorary member of the tribe, over the objections of Tars’ bitter rival, the one-horned Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church). John’s reluctance to fight in the Thark army is soon put to the test, as they witness an attack on the city of Helium by Than’s forces…
Note: One of the elements that survives from the centenarian novels is Burroughs’ views on war as a sometimes necessary evil. Our hero, John Carter, escapes one civil war on Earth only to find himself a pawn in another civil war on Mars. Carter’s befriended tribe of green Martians, the Tharks, are an analog to the “wild” Apaches, which a post-war John Carter is being drafted to kill at the beginning of the story. The Therns are similarly analogous to the old, graying politicians and generals who send young men and women out to fight, though they never risk getting harmed or killed themselves. The Therns, like our politicians, are akin to chess players—using flesh and blood beings as pawns.
Using Tars’ telescope, Carter spots Deja Thoris dangling from the underside of an attacking light ship (solar-powered flying vehicles of Barsoom) after fighting off Than’s forces with her own broadsword. The Tharks are utterly indifferent to the civil war between the Red Martian factions, but Carter immediately recognizes them as fellow humans and leaps to her rescue. Deja is literally swept off her feet by the dashing southern cavalryman, and tries to learn all about him. To Deja’s disappointment, Carter’s story about being from a place with ships that sail on vast oceans seem like the ravings of a madman. Granted, a madman who saved her life, but a madman, nevertheless. Given Carter’s value to his newfound green friends, they welcome Deja into their tribe as well. That trust is soon broken when Deja, Carter and a very reluctant Sola break into the sacred temple of Issus (a god of Barsoom) to find clues of Carter’s true origin. Using ancient hieroglyphs, which Deja can read, they determine that Carter is from Jasoom–the third planet from their shared sun, also known as Earth. Their sacrilege is discovered by other Tharks, and Sola is nearly killed for her transgression, but is spared by Tars…who is Sola’s biological father. Shortly after, Carter, Deja and Sola, along with Carter’s loyal calot “Woola,” are exiled from the tribe, with Tars’ secret well wishes for all of them…
Note: Lynn Collins wears lots of ‘warrior-kinis’ throughout the movie. Probably a safer option than the largely nothing that her character Deja Thoris wears in the books. Can’t imagine even an entertainment giant like Disney getting away with that one.
The three exiles ride their thoats (beasts of burden) off towards a sacred land where Carter hopes to find a means to return home, but Deja seems to be steering them in the wrong direction…towards Helium. Carter, unwilling to fight in Deja’s war with Zoganda, is incensed and steers the group back towards the holy river…
Note: There’s a scene where the exiles stop along a very familiar rock formation to rest; that rock formation is, of course, the famous movie/TV location of Vasquez Rocks in the town of Agua Dulce, past Santa Clarita, where many famed episodes of “Star Trek,” “Outer Limits,” “The Invaders” and other TV series were filmed, as well as countless movies such as “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” (1986), “The Flintstones” (1994), “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,”(1991), “Army of Darkness,” (1992), “Star Trek” (2009) and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” (1997). The location is still widely in use today, and was most recently featured as itself in “Star Trek: Picard” (2020).
Taking a raft reserved for pilgrims, the three of them navigate towards a large domed tower at the river’s end. Leaving Sola and his pet calot behind to stand watch, Carter takes Deja for a closer look by leaping into the sky and landing atop the tower, where she realizes that the tower itself might’ve been made using something like the ninth ray construction technology she was developing.
Note: John Carter’s leaps into the sky are very much like the earliest adventures of “Superman” in the pages of Action Comics, from the late 1930s. In his earliest incarnations, Superman didn’t fly–he merely leaped from place to place, much like Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” decades later. Watching Carter leap, I can’t help but wonder if Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who were teenagers when they created the iconic superhero) were also inspired by the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs as well…?
Walking inside, scientist Deja surmises it isn’t a place of mysticism, but of data. Within the hard, webbed flooring of the temple’s interior, she encourages Carter to break out his amulet, which he managed to get back from Tars. In the presence of the blue symbols radiating from the floor, the amulet begins to glow reciprocally. Deja learns more about the ninth ray, as well as the means of returning Carter to his native Jasoom. Carter, in turn, learns that he is but a ‘telegraphed’ copy of himself (teleportation alert), while the ‘real’ John Carter is still in a cave in Arizona. If Carter dies on Mars, he dies on Earth, and vice versa. In short, this little trip yields a lot of important story information. Carter and Deja also learn they have feelings for each other as well. However, before they can rejoin Sola on the raft, the two almost-lovebirds are captured by a rival faction of green Martians being led by Tars’ rival, Tal Hajus. The forces of Helium intervene to rescue their princess, but the liberated Deja is greeted with bad news from her father; she is to marry Jeddak Than, or else Helium will fall and Carter will be executed. Considering the stakes, a desperate Deja agrees to marry the reviled Than in order to bring peace to her people.
Note: The middle act of the film, particularly the exile and pilgrimage scenes are accursedly slow-paced and should’ve been excised or at least shaved down considerably in editing. At two hours and twenty minutes, “John Carter” has too much padding to make it an easy watch for newbie audiences. This was clear to me even when I first saw the film in IMAX 3D over nine years ago. I keep imagining a much leaner cut of the film where Carter and Deja learned what they needed back at the temple of Issus, and we see Tars’ rule overthrown right afterward, with the exile sequence dropped altogether.
A captive Carter is resigned to his fate when he is unleashed and led around the city by the shapeshifting Thern, Matai Shang. Shang assumes various guises for easy access throughout the city, keeping Carter bound by his technology. Matai tells Carter of his experience with Earth people, he even accurately guesses Carter’s birthplace by his dialect. It’s clear that the Therns have an active presence on Earth as well. With the two of them alone, Carter learns that the Therns don’t care who ‘wins’ the wars of Barsoom; they’re just helping the entropy along and enjoying the show, while the dying planet continues towards its inevitable end. With his ‘leashes’ temporarily disabled to allow him to speak, Carter tells the ‘immortal’ Matai that the Therns aren’t bulletproof, since he shot one dead back in Arizona. Seizing his chance to escape with Matai’s surprise, Carter steals a light ship with Woola’s timely (and disruptive) assistance. Seated inside the alien light craft, Carter learns to operate it on the (literal) fly…
Note: The scene between Carter and Matai is the equivalent of a Bond villain laying out their plans to our hero, just before he escapes with all the information he needs. In this case, Carter learns that the Therns are active on Earth, and he will later use that information to find another amulet in order to return to Barsoom…
Gaining experience with his newfound Barsoomian lightship (a solar-powered personal aircraft), Carter plans to return to the green Martians and plead for their assistance in rescuing Deja Thoris and stopping the Therns. Carter realizes the Therns’ dangerous plans also include the green Martians as well. Returning to his adoptive tribe, he is saddened to learn his ally, Jeddak Tars Tarkas, has been overthrown by his brutal rival Tal Hajas. Carter and Tars meet in a prison cell, where a distraught Tars tells Carter they will face certain death in the arena.
Note: The solar-panel winged ‘air ship’ is an interesting, almost cyberpunk piece of retro technology that looks like a blue-winged dragon fly. Incidentally, NASA has flown the very first helicopter on Mars (or any alien planet) earlier this year, with the Perseverance rover mission. The rover carried the 4 lb. “Ingenuity” helicopter (or more accurately, drone) which has since made multiple, solar-powered flights of several hundred feet or more. As a technology demonstration, Ingenuity proved that with the right mass and lift, it is possible to fly a bladed aircraft even in the ultra-thin atmosphere of Mars.
Tars and his human ally are in a rock canyon arena, with the high leaping Carter chained to a massive boulder, dampening his means of escape. The scene is reminiscent of ancient Roman gladiatorial combat, as the two prisoners face death by twin “white apes”; freakishly large, six-limbed, saber-toothed simians who charge into the canyon with the intention of making a pulp out of Tars and Carter. Using his superior bone density in the weaker Martian gravity, Carter breaks off a large chunk of his boulder anchor, and brains one of the apes. He then uses a crudely fashioned weapon to impale another. Covered in the slain beasts’ blue blood, Carter wins the sympathy of the crowd, who chant “Vorjeenya! Vorjeenya! Vorjeenya!”
Note: One of the most ludicrous online criticisms I’ve heard against “John Carter” is its arena scene (a set piece straight from the books) was somehow ‘stolen’ from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” (2002). Um…yeah, the arena scene in “John Carter” was conceived over 109 years ago. That’s well before the people who created Star Wars were ever born. Not to mention that George Lucas himself (no less) admitted that his arena scene was an homage to both John Carter and the stop-motion crabs seen in Ray Harryhausen’s 1961 film of Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island” (1875).
With the assembled Tharks’ rallying with him, Carter then calls out a direct challenge to the leadership of Tal Hajas. The one-horned brute meets Carter in the arena and is quickly killed. Carter is now the de facto ruler of the Tharks. For his first action, he tells his tribe that they need to rescue Deja Thoris and overthrow both Than and the Therns, who are a threat to green Martians as well. To save time, Carter proposes they join him and fly over to Helium en masse, but there is a problem—Tharks don’t fly. It’s both a fear and a cultural taboo. Disappointed, Carter nevertheless vows to stop the wedding of Deja and Jeddak Than.
Note: As an anxious flyer myself, I get where the Tharks are coming from…
Later that evening, the city of Helium prepares for its royal wedding as a miserable Deja walks along the brutal Jeddak Than to receive her father’s blessings. To say no one has their heart in it would be a massive understatement. As predicted, the armies of Zoganda invade, intending to overthrow Deja’s father. With no hope in sight, Deja is relieved when John Carter crashes the wedding with his stolen lightship, having gained much experience in controlling and maneuvering the vehicle. Even Carter’s lightning fast pet Woola arrives to bite the legs of a few bad guys. As the lopsided battle seems to turn back to Zoganda’s favor, the Tharks also crash the wedding in an airship troop transport, overcoming their fear/taboo of flying to save Barsoom. With the combined armies of the Tharks, John Carter and the forces of Helium, the Zogandans are soundly defeated. Than himself is killed by a Thern weapon, just before Matai escapes into the crowd.
Note: The bronzer used in this scene alone could’ve broken the movie’s already monstrous budget. At over $250 million, “John Carter” was (and is) one of the most expensive movies ever made. Sadly, it’s opening week in March of 2012 only grossed a bit over $30 million domestically. Given that it opened in a month not exactly known for box office hits (March is something of a movie release graveyard), as well as the infamous negative press and general ill will surrounding the movie, it’s not surprising that it bombed so badly at the box office. The real crime is that “John Carter (Of Mars, dammit)” is actually a good film in its own right. It’s just too bad that Disney had so little faith in it.
With the different factions of Barsoom united, the evening has turned from apocalyptic to joyous, and the royal wedding proceeds on schedule—but with Carter as the groom. Later, on their wedding night, Deja awakens to see her new husband staring off of the balcony in the direction of his native Earth. When she asks if he regrets staying, he tells her he is now “John Carter of Mars,” and that Barsoom is his new home. As proof of his devotion, Carter then takes the amulet and tosses it far into the remote sand dunes. It’s at that moment when the Thern Matai reappears with his transport amulet and whisks Carter back to Earth against his will—and without the amulet, Carter cannot return.
Note: See? “John Carter of Mars”… it’s even used in dialogue, for chrissakes. It was a perfect title.
Back on Earth, Carter becomes a wealthy man with the gold he’d discovered, and uses the money to search the world for another amulet left behind by the Therns’ in order to return to his life (and wife) on Barsoom. As the young Ned Burroughs reads the final pages of the diary, he learns that his uncle faked his own death in order to lure a Thern to his final resting place in the tomb. Access inside of the tomb is made when Edgar presses the letters N, E, and D on “Inter Mundos,” since only his uncle John called him Ned. Once the crypt door is opened, he sees his uncle alive, and a Thern immediately appears. Carter quickly snatches the startled Thern’s amulet before killing the unwanted visitor. With the amulet in hand, he prepares to return to Mars once again, but not before saying a heartfelt goodbye to his nephew Ned, whom he urges to live a full life… maybe even write a book.
Note: Hehe, “write a book.” I see what you did there, movie…
Summing It Up.
The movie’s highly romanticized version of Mars, is, of course, not at all like the rusty, nearly airless world being explored by humanity’s robot emissaries today, but “Princess of Mars” was written 109 years ago, and for all anyone knew then, Mars could’ve been teeming with thoats, tharks and white apes. Perhaps one reason why the movie doesn’t quite register with audiences today is that we’ve seen too many images and data from Mars-based spacecraft to accept the book/movie’s fanciful Barsoom; a place where Earth people can not only breathe the plentiful air, but be idolized as quasi-superbeings. More realistic movies, such as 2015’s survival epic “The Martian” and other such speculative stories of space exploration have spoiled our palette for the Mars of a different time.
All the same, I’m glad the makers of “John Carter” resisted the all-too-easy out of setting the fantasy on another (as-yet-unknown) planet. Mars, for better or worse, is part of the story’s identity. In the early 20th century, there was still speculation in fringe astronomical circles (or perhaps it was simply belief) that the dying planet of Mars might’ve once held a once-thriving but now dying race of intelligent beings. That romantic notion, however wrongheaded, is part of the steampunkish charm of “John Carter.” Sadly, the movie establishes a narrow mythological clique that isn’t necessarily a recipe for mass audience appeal. The two lead actors, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, are certainly solid enough, though they lack the kind of star-power draw needed to pull audiences into such a cumbersome tale. The movie’s over-length, complex story, large ensemble, and uneven editing can also be a bit taxing for the uninitiated (then again, I could make the same complaint about the “Lord of the Rings” movies… which aren’t my cup of tea, either).
Despite its flaws, Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter” (Of Mars) is a handsomely-made, surprisingly faithful adaptation to the source novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, in good conscience, I can’t recommend this movie to just anyone. Too many will find it boring or inaccessible, and they’re not entirely wrong. The film is best enjoyed by those who can patiently suspend their disbelief long enough to see this centenarian hero get the kind of deluxe, big-screen treatment he’s long deserved. “John Carter” isn’t an easy movie (or story) to love. However, for those willing to lose themselves in the movie’s deluxe ‘Classics Illustrated’ treatment? “John Carter” may well be worth the time and effort.
Safe Viewing Options.
“John Carter” is available to stream exclusively on DisneyPlus, and is also available to purchase on Blu-Ray or DVD, via Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 600,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though the new Delta variant is cause for concern). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.
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