Mar 2 2012 10:00am

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.

David Betz
1. RDBetz
Formerly John Carter of Mars.
Sorry, it's a your/you're kinda thing for me.
Rob Munnelly
2. RobMRobM
I'm reassured to hear this, thanks. I have had trouble believing that Pixar and Andrew Stanton couldn't deliver a kick ass product. I remain worried about the apparently horrible marketing approach to the movie and whether it will be deemed a box office disaster irrespective of quality.
3. AlBrown
I heard Disney dropped Mars from the title because they looked at past films with Mars in the title (such as their entertaining but poorly performing Mars Needs Moms from last year), and found that they did not generally do very well in the box office. But it was a dumb decision, because the title John Carter doesn't do anything to tell us what the movie was about. And their trailers up until recently didn't do much to tell us what the movie was about, other than let us know it was full of monsters and fighting (which is the form of far too many trailers these days, and getting pretty ho hum if you ask me).
I first started reading this series when I was nine, close to five decades ago. I always loved the concept, and can't wait to see it on the big screen. My wife doesn't want to see it (because trailers full of monsters and fighting tend to keep her AWAY from a movie), so my son has offered to go with me.
Glad to hear they have done it justice.
S Cooper
4. SPC
I'm relieved as well - I'm another long-time fan, a woman no less (which makes all the articles I've been reading where they're entirely dismissing that women will go to this movie really annoying and insulting) and I've been so afraid the movie would ruin things.
Marcelo Anciano
5. Marcelo_Anciano
RDBetz; whoops! You are quite right. hmmm, how do I change it?

Rob and Al; the marketing has been really quite strange. I really do not understand why they have made it seem so generic and ignore the history, or even the story. Looking at the ads I don't think that anyone, even fans, know what the film is about... just poor. I think that they feel that they could just throw ads at the TV and on the sides of buses a week before the movie opens and that will bring on a block buster.... I don't think so! Everyone I have spoken to about it think that it looks like a sub Star Wars, it is not. As for doing the stories justice, that is subjective, but I think they did, m
6. Gardner Dozois
Disney couldn't have done any poorer a job of marketing this film if they'd tied an anchor to it and thrown it off the pier. Due to the total lack of buzz, even among most SF fans, I suspect that it will be a failure, initially, at least; may eventually make money on foreign and DVD sales.

It's a film I would have been absolutely wild to see when I was fourteen.
Sky Thibedeau
8. SkylarkThibedeau
Disney's 'Mars Needs Moms',
So Bad they removed the Word
"Mars" from 'John Carter'.
Marcelo Anciano
9. Marcelo_Anciano
SPC; well, for me it worked, I think anyone who has grown up with the stories will recognise them. Gardner; I live in, what Hollywood calls, foreign territories! And I cannot see it doing well over here (UK) because no one knows about it.
A.J. Bobo
10. Daedylus
Is it actually set on Mars? And, if so, what's with the blue sky? Not knowing the politics behind-the-scenes, I assumed that they dropped "Mars" from the title because the planet in the movie doesn't actually look like what a modern audience would expect.

Note: I have not read any of the original stories, so if this is all explained in the stories/movie, just let me know.
11. Wizard Clip
The response to the marketing of JC seems to be more or less universal, but it's good to hear positive advance word from a fan of the stories, so who knows, maybe word of mouth will succeed where the Disney marketing juggernaut has (thus far) failed.

And hey, how cool to know that the great Gardner Dozois is on and reading these posts.
Marcelo Anciano
12. Marcelo_Anciano
DaedylusSL; you don't have to have read the stories before seeing the movie, they introduce all the elements that you need in the film (they left out quite a bit). As for Mars, they could have made it more exotic for sure, but it really did not affect (for me) the look, it is set on Mars.
Rob Munnelly
13. RobMRobM
I've been waiting for this movie for a long time, as has my 13 year old son (coincidentally with the first and middle names of "John Carter" -and, no, my daughter is not named Dejah Thoris). But I've always had the question about the intended audience. Pixar generally targets younger kids. Action films generally target teens and young adults. I've always been concerned that a Pixar live action movie would be too much for kids but the Pixar name would not be seen as a big plus for older teens and adults - leaving a hollow center of crappy sales. Always a sad thing when your fears appear to be heading towards reality.
Paul McCall
14. PaulMcCall
Did they use the term Barsoom at all in the film?
I also have about 50 years of Barsoomian fanatiscm under my belt. To the point where I collected the series again whenever a new cover artist was used starting with the Abbett covers which were my introduction. I've gone back and acquired some of the St. John covers on dust-jacketed hardbacks.
I know they have to change things for a film but all the trailers I've seen have me excited. After I saw the green Martians, that is. Get them right and it goes a long way towards making me happy. Search for images from Antonio Sabato Jr.'s Princess of Mars a year or so ago that went stratight to DVD to see how NOT to do a John Carter movie!
Eric Craddock
15. ebonecircus

This isn't a Pixar film. It's just plain ol Disney. Yes, many Pixar people are involved, and it was originally gonna be Pixar's first live action, but nowhere does the name Pixar appear anywhere near this film...just FYI...

At least I think so, I'm talking like I know, but I don't really know anything...
Marcelo Anciano
16. Marcelo_Anciano
Paul, yep, they call it Barsoom.
RobRob; I think the problem that Disney have is that they do not really know who to market this film to. It is a movie for kids, for sure. The kids in the cinema responded to the movie with such enthusiasm, however, it has some pretty hard fights in it, which might throw Disney.
Peter Tijger
17. Peter-Tijger
Well, the movie is really getting a push over here, I see trailers on tv all the time.
And having read this article I now really want to see it !!!
8th of march it's out. I will be seeing it with my 13 year old son. Imax 3D...oh yeah.
18. politeruin
I agree that they have completely ballsed up the marketing for this and that's what will kill it, there was that one "comedy" trailer which was just painful to watch. Having just read the first book for the first time in the 100th year of barsoom it's good to find out they've not scrimped on the pulpy goodness so i'm looking forward to it.
19. AlBrown
@10. The movie is set on Mars, but a Mars with a thicker atmosphere (thus the blue skies), canals and living creatures, a Mars that folks of the late 19th century still thought might be possible.
A movie set on the Mars we know today would be much shorter, in fact, the script would consist of:
John Carter: Where am I? Why can't I breathe? Ack.....wheeze...
Cue credits.
20. RobinM
I read all the Tarzan's but only about 3 or 4 of the John Carter's when I was around 12. It's been a few years but isn't Dejah Thoris supposed to be GREEN too?
David Goldfarb
21. David_Goldfarb
No, Dejah Thoris is not supposed to be green. My recollection is that her skin was brick red, but if not that then some sort of reddish hue.
22. politeruin
Dejah thoris is definitely of the red martian variety, a light reddish copper colour to be precise. As a first time reader i really was expecting something utterly dated and in keeping with 1912 world views so he'd end up fighting against those injuns...i mean green martians. So i was pleasantly surprised; how progressive of you ERB. There is more depth to this than one would initially believe. Onward to book 2...
Ilona Fenton
23. felinewyvern
I'm a female fan of John Carter too, and I was amazed at how many people I spoke to, who didn't know anything about who or what the film was about when first discussing it.

Then it dawned on me that the dropping of the words 'of Mars' was to blame. Those words tell people immediately that it is a science fiction film and makes more sense of the trailers that are around.

That said, I am looking forward to seeing the film regardless of how much they have played around with the original concept, just so that I can reconnect with a childhood dream :D
Marcelo Anciano
24. Marcelo_Anciano
Couple of reviews which capture my feelings as well, have not read a bad one yet:
Not sure whether I can link here ...
25. cube
saw john carter last night at a preview.... 1. Disney ran a horrible preview... bad hired security doing after hrs TSA. 2. Not to use "mars" until the last title? A Cowards way to use the name, not in presell, but only IF the movie makes back its money for the "sequel"... either use it or not... but yeah.. its "todays" creative. 3. Cant anyone create an adventure movie musical score anymore...better clone John Williams fast.... cant remember a lick of the themes, only that they didnt show up at the right times in the action.;) 4. Didnt need the "Dune" opening... we "should" have learned about Mars from the action..."ala carters strange land/man eyes". 5. Design was well done overall, but alot was derivative of the works that now are all known "From" star wars... so not only was the"story" going to seem like alot of "star wars" so was the look "doug chiang" as the main designer... it was also lit like Star Wars sequels... it really should have gone "retro colorful"..but anyway--... not my gig. and that might have alerted too many to Camerons Avatar heist of the base material;) 6. It'll do "THE MUMMY" type business...alot like those flicks IMO. Fun movie for the summer for most. 7. Dedicated to "Steve Jobs"?...first one can say WTF? but then, its a good fit... a solid "production" that will be sold/considered "art".... only because the audience really "needs" it to be.
26. Stu Watson
Thank you for the write-up, like you I grew up on being my first taste of "heroic scifi/fantasy" and loved it.

I'm excited to see the film and hope I can roll with any adaptive/creative changes I see as well as you :)

Warm Regards


ps - it looks from the trailer/s that they did a pretty good job on the lead roles (John & Deja)...thoughts? Did they handle the character's well?
27. BrendanReidy
Remember that moment in the Beehive in Ilford where you just leaned forward, out of the blue, and snogged the face off of Bindy Westcott? We're you as stunned as we all were that she just let you..?

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