John Carter of Mars. No Group Sex but Great Summer – ehm, Winter Movie

by Liam Scheff

An incredibly creative, much funnier-than-it-had-to-be movie that was riddled by critics (perhaps because of its terrible name): “John Carter” (of Mars).

A great adventure featuring some great looking actors (and one actress, “Oh, Goddess, I offer a potato chip sacrifice to your deeply sexy silhouette!”), featuring real emotional stakes in what is about the prettiest kid-adult movie you’ve ever seen. It’s a very adventurous adventure (for a change from today’s formulaic kids’ crap) about a Civil War Calvary soldier, tired and soul-beaten from violence and loss, who ends up running from the Indians he was trying to talk peaceably to (but was unable to because the American soldiers chasing him for desertion shot at them), ends up in a sacred cave, and stumbles into a transport area (a ‘telegraph’) to and from Mars, used by ‘ancient aliens.’ On Mars he discovers he’s a bit of a Superman, because of the reduced gravity.

There, he has to learn to fight (and care) again, for the “Indian” people (red-skinned, played by pretty actors), who are under attack by the “Roman” (looking) army. (In fact, the whole episode trades liberally and playfully on Roman era warfare and, if not actual history, then a feeling for it).

It’s a very spirited adventure, drawn from Edgar Rice Burrough’s (author of “Tarzan”) novel series, which I’ll now have to pick up. And it does play a lot like the ancient world set in the 19th Century West, (with echoes of “Conan the Barbarian” written in the ’30s by Robert E. Howard) – the same love of new and exotic locales, people and relationships – but without the gore, cannibalism or group sex scenes (Well, it’s not a perfect movie).

The critics took liberal dumps all over it. But, they loved Avatar, which was an over-rated intellectual vacuum – a Rousseauean fantasy that decries warfare by having a war. And they loved Wall-E, which used pretty digital effects to create a giant empty space being drilled into your head. And they loved the recent Batman movies, which mistake insanity for plot structure. Why did they hate it? It’s fairly complex. The politics are more subtly played, at times, than are allowed in American films. The good and bad guys seem to get along – at times. And the father of the princess is willing to let her marry the chief bad guy – who seems hardly bad or threatening, at times. He is played by the world’s greatest British actor to ever play a sex-addicted, stumbling, picaresque Baltimore Cop (the actor – Dominic West, who played “Jimmy McNulty” in “The Wire” HBO series – adults only, do not miss it, losers. It will tell you precisely how the world works. Season Three. Hamsterdam).

So, why did people not get it? Because Americans think that “Talladega Nights” is funnier than “Anchorman.” Because no one reads for complexity. Because we don’t take cinema seriously as an art. Because people believe that Michael Clayton is a serious movie (Come on! (He would have been freaking DEAD. What was that crap with getting out and looking at the freaking bleeding DEER??? JEEZITS). Because Americans believe that 9/11 was committed by guys with box-openers.

ie – We, as a nation, possess no real sense of critical judgement, taste or thinking.

But even I have a problem with the film. Budget. Budget! It cost 250 MILLION dollars. A quarter of a BILLION. On par with or more than the Gross Domestic Products of many countries, including:

Micronesia        297
Cook Islands     248
Palau                  222
São Tomé          212
Anguilla            211
Marshall Islands 166
Kiribati              146

Which seems insane. Absolutely bonkers.

That said, it’s great fun to watch.

How I watched the movie:

I borrowed the DVD from the library on a whim. I put it into the computer which was behind me and to the left, as I worked on my current project (“Summer of ’74”). I usually “watch” movies by listening to them. Movies have to work in terms of script, dialogue and acting. If they don’t, I don’t watch.

I was bored by the opening 4-minute explanalogue, so I skipped it (it’s a voice-over on top of a CGI Martian air-battle explaining the ‘civil war’ on Mars. Not necessary for the plot – inserted, perhaps by the insistence of producers who thought people wouldn’t understand the story?), and jumped into the first scene: the rough-and-tumble titular character (no, that doesn’t mean what you hope it means) getting into a bar scuffle in 1800s Arizona, before being taken by the Calvary, and very wittily lectured. (Nice touches for a Disney film – but that’s the writing – look up the director and writer’s CV, you’ll be duly impressed). Then he zaps to Mars, and I’ll admit, from the moment he walked springily in the reduced gravity of that planet,  I was hooked. I think I watched 90 percent of what followed. Which is a lot for me, “the listener of movies.”

They lost me at the very end, for about 8 minutes, because there are about three endings. The first would have been enough, but they decided to be a little too clever. They seemed to want to tie it to the source material (to Edgar Rice Burroughs), which was wildly unnecessary and not at all prefigured by the drama. Oh well – they got back on track fairly quickly, and it was all forgiven.

The movie did not earn back it’s mega-budget – but don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to raise money for millionaires. The director and writers are all successful and accomplished, (having made most of the Pixar films), so you don’t have to cry a river for any of them. But it is a charming, winning, and very, very creative movie. Again, better than Avatar, which was absurd and intellectually dishonest; better than any Transformer’s movie (but so are the pieces of paper I roll out of toilet paper when I’m cleaning my ears and have no q-tips); and better than Wall-E, Cars or any of the recent Pixar stuff.

It’s a bit much for very young kids (though I would have just loved it), and about right for 11 and above, I imagine. Except for the group sex scenes.

Kidding. Again, there are none of those. (Damn it…Disney killjoys.)

A treat for “Rome” (TV series) aficionados and fans – the General of the “good guy” army is played by Ciaran Hinds – the indelible Caesar of “Rome.” His second in command is played by the devilish James Purefoy, the excellent Mark Anthony from “Rome” – it’s a bit of a nice reunion….

In sum: Pure movie fun, playing adroitly with archetype and expectation. Very enjoyable film. Not perfect, but what is. The CGI sometimes gets in the way of the actor’s responses; some of the camera shots could have been held longer on faces to build dramatic tension, before the big CGI reveals. Some crap CGI nonsense put in for the 3D glasses crowd. And, two too many endings.

But, and, still. So much to recommend it. Not typical, trite American stuff. Too expensive by far, and yet. It’s there, don’t watch Avatar, watch John Carter of Mars. It’s just much more fun.

And take some struggling student friends to dinner, for God’s sake. Spread the wealth around. 250 million dollars. Jeesh. What the flip are we thinking???

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Carter_of_Mars

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Carter_%28film%29

I think what I like best (besides the Princess, Holy Shit. Holy Crap. Oh my GOD). Is that the movie made me feel the way I did as a child, watching the fantasy and adventure films of the 70s and 80s – it made me feel like drawing (which was my constant recreation growing up). It inspired that creative joy…

– Save me, princess! I’ll do whatever! Anything! Wow. Man. You look so great! In that bikini. I’m just saying. Wow. You are great. Has anyone ever told you how great you are! So .. interesting! You are so interesting. Let’s .. let’s just walk. Can we take a walk? Monkeys? No, I don’t .. no, I don’t see any monkeys.

 – Indiginous people of Mars. Very fun in the movie. Not your typical sanctimonious “Dances with Wolves,” “Lion King,” “Avatar” Rousseauean fantasy bullshit.

 – You have such great… thighs. Princess. Have I told you that? About your thighs? Like creamy pillows. Wow. You are.. so interesting. So interesting!

– 3-D is kind of gay. But not in the good way of men forming long-term loving relationships with other men, whom they love and are relatively faithful to. But, in that other way, of just kind of sucking. Thankfully, there are very few of these obnoxious fucking scenes in this very enjoyable movie.

Princess Dejah. “Hey, that is a pretty name. Dejah – Deja Vu? Right? Like.. have we met before? Right? Hey.. hey, I just wanted to say… Whatever you say. I will do whatever… you… want. Say. Can I carry your books? No? Please? Uhm. I just want to be held. That’s all. Really. I just.. that’s all. I’m just… can we just be friends and hold each other? For awhile? Awhile. Not too long a time. Because…that would ruin it. And I do not want to ruin it. I swear. Just, let’s .. why can’t two people just hold each other through the night and most of the morning and smell each other’s hair and I might weep openly I’m not sure why. I mean, yes. That’s all I wanted to say. So… Okay. I’ll call you. Or, no. You .. you call me. Right. That’s good. Whenever that works for you. No pressure. You.. yes. Okay! See you. No problem. I was just.. right. I have to go. I have football in the morning. Okay. Bye. Bye. Please don’t leave. Oh, fuck. She’ll call. She’ll.. probably call. Eventually. Play it cool. Give her time… okay… whew. Wow. That went well. That went reallly well. I think. Shit.

Links to articles by other people who agreed with my assessment, to demonstrate how entirely correct I am in saying that this movie is much superior to Avatar, which was kind of gay (but, again, see above, in the bad, not the good way).

http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/03/10/john-carter-better-than-avatar/

https://www.google.com/search?q=john+carter%2C+much+better+than+critics

http://hollywoodlife.com/2012/03/09/john-carter-movie-review/

http://www.sf-fandom.com/2012/03/09/john-carter-is-better-than-critics-led-us-to-believe/

Addendum (meaning “addition” or “update” in Americanese)

Still enjoying the movie in recollection. It wears well, better than most summer films. I watched the 10 minute ‘docu-‘ making of, featuring readings by Edgar Rice Burroughs (a self-styled personality unto himself who became a professional fantasy/pulp fiction writer only in his 30s – (ahem, hey pal!)), interviews with the director (Pixar superman Andrew Stanton) and Jon Favreau (who had a go at making the movie prior to 2009). The short film gave an overview to the development of the film – “100 years in the making” – which makes a wonderful addition to any mythologists canon.

The story that the film is derived from was called “Princess of Mars,” which (yes, trust me, I’m almost always right about these things) would have been a much better name for the movie. “Edgar Rice Burroughs [small print]: PRINCESS OF MARS.” With the sexy, smart, funny (oh GOD please just… Oh. Man. She is .. wow. Marry me for 10 minutes, please) Lynn Collins as Princess (with a scimitar) Dejah in a gorgeous painted poster. Jeez Louise, people would have seen the movie.

Instead, some bonehead called it “John Carter,” which sounds like… not a movie. Maybe a very small-budget film where William H. Macy plays a janitor who is trying to put his life together after a drunk-driving accident. No offense to anyone in such a situation of being either: William H. Macy, or in any kind of car problem. Not funny, I know, but that’s the point. Bad title).

To add injury to a poor name choice, the film closes with a lovely shot of Mars, which is overlaid by a graphic – the letters, stylized, reading “J.C.” Right. Now, this is a problem, because in all of Western literature, there is only one figure who is easily identifiable by those initials. And… it’s a bad, bad reach – and a downer. Wow. Really? We… no. Not. You didn’t. You did? “JC?” Oh. boy.

So, “Princess of Mars” would have been more fun.

The film is fairly long (2hrs 13 mins) and could easily have been successfully broken into two films, without losing a thing. They seemed to be planning for a sequel (based on the commentary, which is unfortunately uninteresting) which will now not happen, given the film’s commercial failure. I wonder if they’d have been better off being less rushed to tell the whole thing in one? Look at Peter Jackson. He’s turned one book into three excruciatingly boring movies. (Or, he will do: The Hobbit pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3). about short Welsh men running around in the woods with their life partners and drinking mates. No women in that, of course. Why bother? Clearly Tolkein was writing in the vein of Tom of Finland. (I don’t know how people miss that). Tolkein-heads, please write your angry letters to me at the website, and make sure to thank your moms for not throwing you out of the house despite the fact that you’re 35.)

In any case, this film, on its own, is exciting, vibrant, packed with unfolding plot – and quite winning.

Realizations: John Carter is (at least one of the) origin stories of Superman (man on another planet given ‘super’ powers, but owing to the ‘scientific’ regard to the gravity differences). Carter “leaps” tall building, gorges and plateaus – he doesn’t ‘fly’ (levitate), but he surely covers ground. (A slight complaint in that regard – he really does seem to get an extra boost while in the air at times. I mean, if I’m paying to see a man leap, I want to see him leap. Or, whatever. It won me over).

John Carter is also the origin story for the Star Trek “transporter.” Carter is moved via an interplanetary “telegraph” (a flash of light and electricity and he’s gone) from Earth to Mars, to Earth, to Mars – but unlike in Star Trek, this is no cheap trick, and is hard to come by, and significant in the plot. Of course, de-materialization and re-materialization is as old a thought as Anubis and Ishtar – but it’s nice to trace today’s myths (science fiction) to it’s nearby watermarks.

And ‘Carter’ prefigures most of what we see in Flash Gordon, Star Wars and even Dune. But, the mythic imagination is eternal and fills all of us – of course these concepts form similarly in different writers.

I did go back to watch the first 10 minutes – I was right to skip it. After the 4 minute Martian prologue, we get a nearly useless 6 minutes in 1800s New York, which winds us into a diary reading, from which the story we will spend 2 hours with is meant to come alive.

The plot would have been better served (trust me, I’m almost always right in my edit suggestions for movies that have already been made – it’s like a magical power) by scrapping the New York scenes (and 3rd ending) completely, and winding the short 3-minute Martian sequence into flashbacks within the body of the work. Don’t ask me how I know this. Just know that I do, and now, I am more powerful then ever.

(And please watch “Submarine,” directed by Richard Ayoade, from the novel by Joe Dunthorne. Or, I will take you to Mars and leave you there. (I won’t. But please watch the movie, or I will take you to Mars, and leave you there. (I won’t. I was kidding. I don’t have that as a power. And if I did, I might have sworn that I would only use it for good).

Cheers from Mt. Crumpet.

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About Liam Scheff

"Author, Artist, Film, Permaculture." Liam Scheff is a writer, artist and stand-up lecturer on issues that people usually don't make comic books about. (Visit liamscheff.com). Liam's highly-praised book "Official Stories" reveals the complex details behind the myths of our times.
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10 Responses to John Carter of Mars. No Group Sex but Great Summer – ehm, Winter Movie

  1. April Boden says:

    That’s a great review. Funny.. Hilarious actually.. Gave me many a chuckle.. And Avatar did suck!! And who said Talladega Nights was better than Anchorman? Give me their names and addresses… I will go to their houses, ring the bell.. and immediately run away. A little ding dong ditch will teach them to like dumb movies.

    Anyhoo.. love the review, I will have to see the film. I had not heard of it before but now you’ve won me over.

  2. scvtaylor says:

    I hadn’t seen it, but now I have to. What a colossal marketing blunder – you had $250 mil riding on this and you brought your C game. And I’ll bet no one at Disney was fired for this. First of all the title was so bad that I didn’t even watch the trailer. No, thinking about it, what ruined it was seeing the “Disney” name in the title. I think that’s supposed to be a mark of quality but to me its a mark of cheese – like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the with mountain movie with The Rock. Pul-eeese. Anyway, “John Connor of Mars” would have given me a bit more to go on — I didn’t realize it was on Mars, I also didn’t know it was Edgar Rice Burroughs and either of those data points would’ve piqued my interest. Also John Carter (the name of Noah Wiley’s character on”ER”) is way too similar to John Connor (“Terminator”) to be taken seriously. “Princess of Mars” might have made an impression, especially with that actress in a provocative warrior-princess pose. Or how about a half/half poster with a John as a 19th c. Union soldier and as a bad ass Martian superman. Or something. Seriously? That poster with a Martian with 4 arms and the title John Carter – that creature isn’t John Carter, so what am I looking at?

    Also what’s Disney doing releasing a potential summer blockbuster in March? It’s like they we’re even trying… and if that’s the case, why spend $250 million. It doesn’t make any sense.

    What a shame. Key people should’ve been fired. My sympathies to the cast and crew. Sometimes the studio just tanks it and there’s nothing you can do.

    • Wayne Baker says:

      Michael Crichton, who wrote ER, was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, and named the Noah Wyle character as a tribute.

      • scvtaylor says:

        That makes a lot of sense and illustrates one of the problems of history and lack of memory. The only think that’s important is what’s new. If Disney had just titled the film “Edgar Rice Bourough’s John Carter (of Mars)” that might have made the difference. An epic tale needs an epic title. Show people it has weight, source material. He wrote those novels for 40 years. I blame myself, I should’ve known that, but alas.

  3. scvtaylor says:

    The only thing I can figure is that maybe Andrew Stanton (one of the principals of Pixar) had this as a pet project and when Disney bought Pixar for a bagillion dollars there was a side deal that they had to make this film, but the Disney executives didn’t like Stanton, or the project, or just didn’t like it because it wasn’t their idea, and so they made and and they released it (because they had to) but they did everything possibly a passive-aggressive corporate EVP could do to sabotage it. That’s the only scenario that makes any sense. Also explains why the studio could shrug its shoulders and move on without sacking the whole marketing/distribution dept. But what do I know…

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