A First Impression of John Carter. Does it Succeed as a Pulp SF Film?

I was invited to see an advance screening of the movie John Carter. Formerly John Carter of Mars.

First let me say that I have been a fan of the books since I could first read. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs; Tarzan and John Carter were my creative tutors. I even made a sword and took fencing lessons before I was ten, just in case I had to be whisked to a far off planet and fight aliens!

So I went to the film with trepidation. I am not supposed to publish any kind of review until a week before the movie is released. (What is that about? I had just seen a great fantasy film and could not talk about it?! I talked to a few people and no one, I mean no one had heard about it. There was no name recognition, no idea what the movie was about or that it was imminent. A month before the movie is to be released.) I feared that this fine film was to be dropped.

And I loved this film, it is a classic pulp style sci-fi adventure.

However, I love it with reservations.

Master Mind of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsI could overlook the design of the airships, there are so many interpretations of Burroughs’ creations that another was okay. I grew up on Robert Abbett’s vision, on Clifton-Dey and Bruce Pennington’s, they were on the British paperback editions and crystallised the Mars that has remained with me (Frazetta was someone I thought did posters and comics then, I had no access to his Doubleday books), so the covers that led me into these stories were, for me, the canon.

I could take on board that the film makers would have to play around with all the stories to make a coherent single movie. Burroughs wrote the first story with no obvious sense that he had mapped out all the components of the whole series. Hell, I would be surprised if he thought there was to be a second story. So, what the writers have done to bring in a worthy opponent from the later story is okay with me.

The idea that the Tharks are not double sized… I could completely understand why they chose that, too. If they had done that we would have had a hero that always looked like he had a crooked neck! That kind of thing works great in a written story, not so great in a film.

No. My reservation is with the structure of the film itself.

In the books John Carter is transported to an alien world. He has to learn to view things afresh. He has to learn how to walk, starting the story crawling like a baby, something the movie does really well. He comes across a nest with strange four-armed lizards breaking out of eggs. Completely alien. Then he is surrounded by a race of green four armed men. He thinks that they are the only race of people….

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsAll this gives us a sense of empathy with John Carter’s unfolding understanding of an alien race through his experience of the world. He (and we) then realise that the Tharks are not the only race, that there are people who look like him and that they are in a furious fight with others and Carter’s understanding of the politics of Mars unfolds. We are the protagonist and we, as John Carter, become crucial in resolving Mars’ conflict as we understand the dynamics more and more. That is what took me through the stories as a kid and is one of the reasons, I believe, why the stories resonate still today. It becomes a personal experience.

The film opens with a massive airship fight over an ancient city in old Mars. All the politics and the big baddies are introduced.

Then we cut to John Carter in the Wild West and the familiar story begins.

What this does is make the audience become a third person viewer with superior knowledge. You wonder how John Carter will fit into the story that only the audience is party to. The viewer is shown/told that they have to be a plot maestro and have to deduce Carter’s possible involvement in the set-up in the opening minutes. You become separated from the evolution of Carter’s understanding of the world.

In the books we only know as much as Carter knows. And that makes us Carter. We understand Mars through his understanding. We make swords and take up fencing, you know, just in case.

In the film, we are told that Carter is just one player in a big story.

Thuvia: Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsSo we become separated from the story a little bit. Distanced from it. If the film had started with Carter being transported, after the brilliant intro of Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Mars and we struggled as much as Carter to understand the world it would have been a lot like my first experience of Mars all those years ago.

Beyond that I must recommend this film to anyone who wants to see a rousing pulp style adventure. A film told in a modern way but which actually harkens back to the adventures of Ray Harryhausen and the old pulps. The spirit of the novels are, for me, really well maintained in this film.

I walked out with a massive grin. I never got bored. Yes, Burroughs’ stories have been mined by every sci-fi film and story since its first publication, from Star Wars to Flash Gordon to Avatar. We are familiar with them all. Yes, a lot of the tropes that Burroughs first came up with are now considered old fashioned in modern science fiction. But this film has a great sense of fun and enjoyment about it. And even after a couple of weeks, I still think about it and there are some stunning scenes which are absolutely new ways to experience the stories.

But it did not grab me emotionally as the stories first did.

However, for me, Stanton (the director) and Chabon have become one of the Barsoom visionaries along with Clifton-Dey, Pennington, and Frazetta.

Don’t get me started with Disney’s choice to call the film John Carter, everyone I have ever mentioned it to felt that the name was really poor, it should, I feel, have been called “John Carter of Old Mars.” Would have clarified everything and told us what sort of pulp film you would be watching. And made for a better movie poster.

John Carter of Mars

Marcelo Anciano is the publisher of Wandering Star Books and a film producer.


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