WTF Happened to John Carter? Critical Thoughts on the Film by a Barsoomian Heretic

Updated on 7/22/2015

In my previous post, I heaped praise–and deservedly so–on Michael D. Sellers’ authoritative book on the box office failure of Disney’s John Carter.
 
The classic 1971 cover painting by Frank Frazetta.
 
A Princess of Mars was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1911, and appeared in the February 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine, a classic pulp of adventure tales.  It has a history of many filmmakers trying their hands at making their version of the Barsoomian epic, and you can see some of their efforts on You Tube and on other online sources.  The earliest is an animation test by Bob Clampett in the late ’30s, and the most recent is a beautiful sample reel of paintings and storyboard art by Kerry Conran.  I truly wish that film had been made.
 
Bob Clampett’s demo reel

 

Kerry Conran’s presentation reel, using concept art and animation.  Wow!

 Don’t get me wrong.  I really like the 2012 movie that was finally released during the John Carter centennial, and there are parts that I absolutely love; parts that have raw, emotive, almost visceral power.  It is a solid science fiction adventure, and the fact that its legion of admirers is constantly growing proves that, with the proper marketing and exploitation, the film could have made much more money than what Disney ended up with.

I like it.  I really do.
 
That said, the critical response to the film was underwhelming, to say the best, and even I, who love the series of books that it was based on, came away from the film . . . well, underwhelmed.
 
Simply put, the books are rich with creativity and inventiveness, with heroes and honor and beauty.
 
The film, however, left me wanting much, much more.  It was good, but not great; fun, but not enthralling–and I believe that a better film, made with a a more imaginative vision, would have brought in more box office bucks.

Let’s compare it to another pulp-turned-into-movie.  John Carter is not the creative debacle that was 1994’s The Shadow.  That movie, also based on a classic and much beloved pulp character, was produced from a script that took a crimebusting, heroic avenger of the night and perverted the character in a way that Hollywood considered cool, but the American audience didn’t like or appreciate.  Everything about the movie felt wrong. 

There is no argument that the lack of marketing efforts—as well as the marketing efforts that were completely misguided–doomed John Carter at the box office.  But how much should the filmmakers be blamed?
 
They tried.  They really did.
 
It just wasn’t enough.
 
With John Carter, many things went wrong creatively . . . but in numerous, little ways that were interconected, and in ways that weren’t wrong, per se, but, simply, lame.  Nothing was really so weak that the movie was a creative disaster–indeed, the script and the filmmakers approached the Burroughs novels respectfully and, I think, with as much love and care as they possibly could.  However, their collective creative misfires watered down a lush and exotic tale of an American swashbuckler on a savage, alien planet, and turned it into a dust-colored western with four-armed monsters and muskets.
 
This was the precursor to Avatar, yet it had none of its descendant’s lushness or color.  This was the precursor to Star Wars, yet it had none of that original trilogy’s mythic sense of wonder.
 
It’s a B-.  At worst, a C+.
 
With $250 million spent on the production and storytellers such as Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon steering it into theaters, John Carter should have been an A+.
 
It needed to be a new Star Wars.
 
Eh.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
 
This essay is not a movie review.  A proper review should critically analyze John Carter–or any given film–based on everything that’s on the screen, and only what’s on the screen.  A good review cannot and should not concern itself at all with what the movie isn’t, or what could have been.  Admittedly, this essay contains elements of a review; but I am more concerned with the magical ride between two worlds that could have been, and what the filmmakers could have done to raise John Carter‘s grade from B- to A+.
 
In no particular order–these are just notes and a conclusion that I’ve made during repeated viewings–here’s where I feel the production went wrong, starting with a basic premise that all artists should have tattooed on the most visible part of their body, so they won’t forget it:
 
THE ONLY SIN IN THE CREATIVE ARTS IS TO BE BORING.
 
Don’t forget that one simple caveat as we go down the list.

 
 
THE TRADITIONAL WESTERN MOTIF DOESN’T WORK ANY MORE.
 
Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of westerns any more, and there’s a good reason for that: they so were overdone to death, in the movies and on television, they simply aren’t marketable any longer to sophisticated audiences that have grown up with computers, Xboxes and smartphones, and living on a diet of Syfy and Spielberg.  Today, the western is trite to mostly everyone under 60.  Seriously, what was the last western that made a huge splash…that people wanted to see?  The UnforgivenSilverado?  These films had adult concepts with big name stars, and offered new approaches to traditional material.  Cable tv’s “Deadwood?”  The same–a new approach and decidedly adult themes.  All valid, and all marketable.
 
Graphic novel from Barnes & Noble

That John Carter is a psuedo-western is an arguable point–and one that I think may have influenced audiences negatively.  Are the Tharks a symbolic twin to the Apaches that are present in the opening portion of the film?  Or are the Barsoomian red men the analog to the American red men?  Does the opening with Carter in the saloon reflect his disenfranchisement with the Civil War, or does it maintain stereotypes and imagery from westerns and, more importantly, “F-Troop?”
 
I won’t delve that deep; I think even the mention of “F-Troop” and its 1960s tropes makes the point for me.   I’m more concerned by the creative decisions to use the American West to stand in for Barsoom, and thus make the parallels all too obvious . . . and all too trite.
 
Trite = boring.
 
Using the West as a starting point, as imagery, as backdrop, was an obvious and weak choice.
 
Stanton and Company got Mars all wrong.  Mars may be a dying world in the novels, yet it is still very much alive.  The Mars in John Carter is a near-dead world, being ravaged by the immortal Therns.  The landscapes used, mostly, if not all, in Utah, are desert and rocky landscapes.  They are beautiful and awe-inspiring to sightseers who travel to the badlands just for the morning vistas–but what do they mean as imagery to the film-going public?
 
Unfortunately, not much.
 
Audiences today need, merely as visual engagement, lush landscapes that not only reflect the story, but evoke in us a longing to travel to that distant world.  We need to WANT movies to take us away.  Look at lush Dagobah, and the forested moon of Endor.  Look at the awesome majesty of the mothership from Close Encounters.  Look at exotic cities such as Bespin, or the wild world of James Cameron’s Avatar.  Disney’s Barsoom is more like Tattooine, a planet that was virtually dead, and one that Luke Skywalker desperately wanted to leave.
 
Why would an audience want to be on a planet of monochrome landscapes and endless emptiness?
 
Some of the various types of Barsoomian landscapes, as visualized by Michael Whelan.
 
Barsoom is a dying planet, but not a dead one.  Even though its oceans had dried millennia ago and its dead sea bottoms were covered with ochre moss, Burroughs envisioned Barsoom with lush landscapes of scarlet grass, of rocky areas where colorful crystal outcroppings dotted the vistas, of forests and swamps, of ruined, abandoned cities whose faded glory was still evident in their design and their trappings, despite their crumbling towers and palaces.
 
Disney’s Barsoom should have been as exotic as could be imagined by CGI and John Carter‘s teams of artists.  Instead, the landscapes were something we’ve seen too much of: mesas and sand, flatness and desert.  They were clearly landscapes of our mundane Earth–not those of an alien planet.
 
They were dull and uninspiring.
 
They could have been so much more.
 
 
WHERE WAS THE GRANDEUR?
 
The green hordes of Barsoom were largely nomadic, living in the ruins of ancient cities where traces of their long-dead peoples were still in evidence.  There was mystery in those ruins.  There was wonder.
 
Where is the wonder and the grandeur in John Carter?  We’ve seen these locales before–they have become archetypes of international travel–but never so muted, never so dun-colored.  The Colisseum of the Tharks appears Greek or Roman in design, but there is hardly a trace left of its design for us to get a handle on its former, long-dead occupants; and any decorations that are evident are clearly Thark in nature.  In the deserts, Carter and Sola ride their thoats past distant spires that were obviously man-made in ages past, but they match the dire emptiness and anonymity of the dead sea bottoms they ride across.  We never get a closeup of their majesty.  They are hints of the past, and curiously not enough for us to look at and wonder Who left these cities?  Who left these monuments?  What was Barsoom like in the distant past?  Instead, the ruins we see are mere stage dressing, when they should have been used almost as character.
An inanimate object as a character?
 
The cast of the original Star Trek series each got a lot of fan letters back in the ’60s.  But the one character who got more letters than even Kirk or Spock was the Enterprise itself.  Viewers believed in the reality of that ship.  Viewers wanted to be ON that ship.  In contrast, the Barsoom of John Carter is merely a setting, devoid of true personality, where things simply happen.
 
Stanton’s Mars is not evocative.  Stanton’s Mars was as blank as a tabula rasa.
 
Hand-drwan map of Barsoom by Burroughs.

A later, fan-created map of locales from the Mars series.

 

Viewers aren’t invested in the Mars of John Carter–and that’s a serious problem when we have a race of Therns trying to destroy the planet, and presumably Carter will eventually stop them.  That’s the thrust of the whole storyline of Stanton’s intended Mars trilogy: Carter will renew this alien wasteland.  We are supposed to care about this storyline; about this world.  But the grandeur and magic of this ancient planet are almost invisible.  Muted.
 
Dull.
 
Burroughs’ Helium was made of two cities, Greater and Lesser Helium.  Their spires and towers were magnificent and shining.  Their control of machinery was so masterful that homes and whole buildings would rise to the tops of their towers at night and stay there, stationary, until morning.  The Helium of John Carter may or may not be one or two cities–we don’t really know, for it has no real identity–and its towers and palaces, instead of hinting to the viewer of Helium’s scientific prowess or the might of its proud armies, its heritage are, again, merely color-coordinated with the drab Barsoomian deserts, and seem primitive or Assyrian in construction, instead of Martian.
 
I understand that art directors and designers use real-world referents for their original designs.  I get that someone on the John Carter team may have said,  Our Mars is a world of deserts, without oceans, and is dying.  Our sets and design should reflect that.  They should hark back to those desert cultures of old, and be based in reality.  So they based an alien world on our desert geographies and their native cultures, resembling historical Persian or Asian or even Indian culture.
 
Okay.  I get it–and, at times on the screen, it works.  But it doesn’t always have to be that way.  Sometimes, an alien planet should look alien.  Instead, John Carter‘s earthly design referents detract from the belief in this fourth planet from the sun.  Verisimilitude–the gradual belief, through the structure of storytelling, in something you would normally never, ever believe in–is lost.
 
The Barsoom of John Carter is not a place I’d want to visit.
I go to movies to experience new things, new visions.
 
Why would I, as a viewer, pay to see John Carter if Barsoom looks just like Earth, just decked out with a little stage dressing?
 
This is not grandeur, nor is it an echo of faded glory.
 
It is a lack of vision and imagination.
 
 
THE ABSENCE OF DYNAMIC VIEWPOINT
 
John Carter is a solid film.  The cinematography is straightforward and . . . okay, well, solid.
 
But there isn’t anything special about the film’s camera shots and setups; and in an action-adventure movie, the camera work has to enhance the vitality of the action occurring onscreen.
 
For the most part, John Carter‘s cinematography is lackluster and uninspired.  It’s almost as though the philosophy was to simply shoot the scene from an angle or vantage point that looked decent, and whatever CGI there was could be dropped in later.
 
The filmmakers should have taken some hints from past movies, and used the camera work to heighten the sense of adventure and urgency.  Black Swan; The Fast and Furious movies; the Mission Impossible series; Avatar; going back: the majestic cinematography of Close Encounters; the car chases from French Connection and The Blues Brothers; the cat and mouse game between starships in Wrath of Khan; the movement of the camera in Brian DePalma’s Carrie and The Fury.  All of these movies used cameras, lighting, and props placed not at good locations in which to catch the action, but at the optimal locations to catch and enhance the action, to play up the energy in the scene, and to impart that energy to the viewer–to make  viewers feel like they’re part of what’s going on.
 
John Carter‘s cinematography is curiously static.  It suffers from a lack of dynamic viewpoint, and the action scenes, while certainly good, needed just a little extra umph to make the movie work even better.
 
Sometimes, it’s all about the WOW factor.
 
We need to be wowed.  That’s what movies are all about: showing us something we’ve never seen before.
 
 
LITTLE GREEN MEN
 
Here’s the deal: the green tribes of Mars were tall.  Big, tall mofos.  Individuals averaged a height of about 16 feet in the books, and have been variously pictured by illustrators as having two sets of arms on each side of their torsos either extremely close together, or far apart and attached at four shoulders, with the big greenies having, basically, two sets of chests and ribcages.
 
I like John Carter‘s portrayal of the Tharks; they are alien creatures, strong, yet spindly, and clearly intelligent, yet still savage.
 
The very first representation of a Thark warrior, from 1912.
 
But I don’t love them.  And I should.  I want to love them.  I really do.  But I need to be impressed by them.  Even more importantly, I need to believe in them.
 
But they’re just not good enough.  They get the job done, but they don’t impress.
 
I need to be wowed.

Accurate representation of Thark and human heights.

Art by Thomas Yeates.  These sizes are fairly accurate, too.

 

Consider their height.  I understand the creative decision to make the green tribes average only ten or so feet tall: it makes for better and more natural camera angles when trying to show a human and a Thark in the same shot.  Go here for an analysis of Tharks and their size, as the issue pertained to the aborted Paramount production: http://www.erbzine.com/gw/1101.html)
 
But Burroughs wrote them as averaging sixteen feet in height.  Wow!  Think of the impact if we had seen a savage Thark that tall.  Tarkas would have been a monstrosity to Carter–larger and much more dangerous than those hatchlings in the incubator.  Think of the terror, the shock, Carter may have experienced upon first sight of Tars Tarkas.  He still thinks he’s on Earth . . . and this thing has just appeared out of nowhere!
 
Instead, the art direction settled for an alien race that is clearly warlike (not really visualized through action up on the screen, but just because they say they are . . . and they have single-shot rifles that blow up things in a small way), and they’re certainly animalistic (the tusks are an indicator, but here they’re merely decoration instead of deadly weapons), but they’re still very close to humans in relative size, expression, voice, and in temperament.
 
Still can’t figure out how they breathe, since they don’t have any nostrils . . .
 
Yes, the green tribes work on the screen.  They look good.
 
But they don’t kick ass.
 
They should have been taller, broader, and more muscular.  They should have been angrier and less understanding.  They should have been sixteen foot-tall Klingons at a bar fight, scrabbling for what little they could scrape off the land, just to survive.  The ferocity and appearance of the Warhoons are what the Tharks should have looked like–consequently, the Warhoons should have been even uglier, greener and meaner.  (By the way, the scene of Carter single-handledly defeating the Warhoon tribe is stupendous. It made the movie for me. It was something straight out of the pulps–a cross between ERB and Robert E. Howard.)
 
And the movie’s green tribes are sexless.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a freakin’ Disney movie, but come on!  You may have noticed: males and female humanoids have some very obvious differences, right?  Well, JC‘s male and female Tharks have NO basic differences.  WTF?  Dejah has breasts, doesn’t she?  Belle and Rapunzel have breasts.  Even Tinkerbell has boobs, AND she was modeled on Marilyn Monroe.
 
So, where are Sola’s girly parts?  What idiot made the visual decision to de-sex the green tribes and to give them all one bland, unisex look?
 
Who was the boob who took away the boobs?
 
Seriously.  De-sexing takes away a lot of the basest, most human interest in characters.  We need to be engaged with a film’s characters on a visceral, unconscious level–one that is answered by simple sex appeal.  In other words, desexing = uninteresting.
 
Where is the wow factor now?
 
Visually, and in terms of storytelling and impact, the contrast between human and green man is an important concept that should have been heightened.
 
Why?
 
Because it is John Carter who has the most powerful influence on the green tribes.  It is he, and his friendship with a sixteen foot tall beast-warrior that, despite their enormous cultural and physical differences, starts to bring the Barsoomian races into harmony with each other.  It was through breaching the vast and long-standing differences between the two races that Mars would eventually be saved.
 
But the friendship between Carter and Tars Tarkas came much too easily in John Carter.  It was too much movie shorthand.   Because of convention and simple, basic movie shorthand, we got a superficial buddy movie instead of a nuanced, mature development of enemies who become friends, with very little initial conflict between the two.
 
It just isn’t enough.
 
Jumping human meets weird alien is an okay concept.  A human, lost on an alien world, taken prisoner by a horde of savage, gargantuan monstrosities, would have had much more holistic impact on the entire film, and especially on the climax, where green man and red man find a way to come together to fight side by side against a mutual evil.
 
This is a movie that has been weakened by shorthand: things that should have been developed, but weren’t.
 
If you don’t believe me, answer this:
 
In the movie, why does Tars Tarkas call Carter Dotar Sojat?
 
Think about it.  Was his name change ever explained?  And why does it matter in the denouement of the arena scene?
 
Dotar Sojat and its relevance is never explained in the film–but it mattered.  It could have been explained with just two lines of dialogue that would have given a deeper meaning to the life and culture of the Tharks–thereby deepening our understanding, and involving us more in the movie.

TARS TARKAS 

By Thark custom, I grant you the name of the foe you have vanquished–and all his belongings, and his rank.  Now, you are a Thark!

Two simple lines of explication and/or dialogue could have answered the question.  That’s all that was needed to explain that Carter was now a Thark, and was due the respect all Thark warriors are granted.
 
 
WHY ARE THEY DRESSED LIKE GLADIATORS?
 
Burroughs went with a shocking concept to post-Victorian 1911.  He decided to show just how alien most Barsoomians are . . . by making Mars a world of cultures whose peoples just don’t wear clothes.
 
Obviously, Hollywood would never make a major motion picture where all the characters run around naked (not counting the XXX variety from Los Porngeles).  Burroughs gave his Martians utility harnesses, which fit them snugly, and allowed for markings, indicating what city they were from, their military rank, their status.  The harnesses were also enabled with hooks and fasteners for some personal items, tools, daggers, and scabbards for their broadswords.  People also wore armbands, jewelry and personal decoration, including helmets and sandals.

Frazetta: Carter all harnessed up.
 
Frazetta established Dejah’s tiara.  Crown.  Whatever you call it.
 
The headgear tradition is maintained even today by most Dejah illustrators, here by Frank Cho.  Barsoomian thong sold separately.
 
Adam Hughes continuing the Frazetta-esque headgear/breastplate ensemble.
 
 
I think the film costumers got it absolutely right with the Tharks and their apparel.  But I think they went in the opposite direction and burdened the red people with too much clothing, and in styles that hearken back to the gladiatorial ages and, again, to Middle Eastern historical periods–eras and locales that, in all honesty, American moviegoers could not care less about.  Carter’s harness looks more like a horse’s harness than something an alien would wear.  It serves no function whatsoever, so why would a warrior race where harnesses at all?  More importantly, Dejah’s primary costume is so bulky and non-defining that it detracts greatly both from Lynn Collins’ femininity and her natural beauty.
 
Just like they did to the female Tharks . . .
 
THEY DE-SEXED DEJAH FREAKIN’ THORIS.
Let me say that one more time.
THEY DE-SEXED DEJAH FREAKIN’ THORIS.
 
Bottom line: snooze.  The costumes designs are neither interesting nor evocative . . nor are they very alien.  Instead, they’re clichéd, right out of the Italian gladiator movies from ’60s drive-ins.  They’re something we’ve already seen, and something Disney thought the public would be comfortable in seeing.
 
Steve Reeves, 1950s.
John Carter, 2012.

Their choices were safe ones.
 
Instead, they should have taken a chance and done something unusual and different.
 
And the Therns!  Their costumes look like nothing more than ugly-ass knock offs straight out of “Star Trek” circa 1964.
Thern?  Not a Thern?
 
The Talosian race.

 

The Vian race.

Which was the original Thern?  Talosians or Vians?  And which has the most original wardrobe?

 

YOU MAKE THE CALL.
So, if you haven’t gotten my drift from the previous 3000 or so words, here’s what I’m trying say:
 
John Carter isn’t a bad movie.  It doesn’t suck.  Not at all.  It’s actually a good movie; and, in places, it’s a pretty good movie.
 
But it should have been a great movie.  And the reason it didn’t appeal to the mainstream public (not even getting into the failure of its marketing efforts) is because it didn’t adhere to the only creative rule:
 
THE ONLY SIN IN THE CREATIVE ARTS IS TO BE BORING.
 
Instead of taking chances and pushing the boundaries of both traditional sci-fi and films of the fantastic, John Carter tried to appeal to the mainstream audience and remained within the genre’s accepted borders.
 
It pulled its punches.
 
It went for G instead of PG.
 
It colored within the lines.
 
Man, what long series of Big Little mistakes.  
 
 
GUNS VS SWORDS
 
Westerns are about gunslingers.  The Martian series is about swords–about fighting with honor, for causes that are right and just.
 
Yes, Barsoomians have large, one-shot pistols, rifles and cannons that shoot “radium” bullets:” projectiles of what Burroughs called radium, encased in an opaque shell.  When the outer hull bursts on contact, the inner core of radium explodes.
 
Even though the races of Barsoom use these guns, they tend to use firearms sparingly, and mostly in cases of organized battle.  However, their preferred weapon of choice is the broadsword.
 
How beautiful and how elegant it would have been to see a ballet of swordplay between John Carter and a detestable opponent?  Maybe it would have inspired young viewers to wear capes and play in the back yard in summer, or to take fencing lessons, and learn about the grace and elegance of the sport.  Maybe a new audience could have learned about fighting hand to hand, looking your opponent in the eyes, and doing close battle with the highest sense of personal honor.
 
But guns are easy to use in movies, and very easy to show.  Audiences are used to guns, not swords.  And they like guns–well, at least, that’s what studio executives think.
 
Mars is not a world of guns, though.  It’s a world of honor and chivalry; of swords and swordplay.

Burroughs even put SWORDS in a title.  They MUST have been important…
Abraham Sherman has an interesting essay over at Erbzine.  I urge you to read the entire piece here: http://www.erbzine.com/mag43/4399.html.  Sherman raises some valid points about the changes that Stanton/Disney made to ERB’s source material, and is primarily concerned with why those changes were made, and why they should have stayed truer to the novels.
 
I understand the need to change things from novels in order to be captured adequately on the screen, and I understand how hard some of these choices can be to make.  I also have no problem if a filmmaker wants to update an old property for today’s audience, or because they see something in it that no one else sees.  I look at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a completely different property than Stephen King’s The Shining, and I don’t begrudge Kubrick’s changes at all.
 
Kubrick did what was necessary to tell the story that he saw underlying the plot of King’s original story.
 
Both novel and film work as separate entities.
 
What I DO have a serious problem with is executives and producers making stupid and dull decisions to craft a movie that’s approachable to the 16-24 year old audience–decisions that, ultimately, have a detrimental effect on a film.  They took a wild, wonderful adventure story that has had personal impact on readers for 100 years because of its concepts and imagery, and watered down those concepts and  imagery in order to make it more palatable to the contemporary American ADHD audience.
 
They took a Filet Mignon and a glass of 1985 Cabernet and turned a wondrous meal into a bowl of Campbell’s Soup–“tasteless, yet inoffensive,” as Stephen King once said.
 
So I think Sherman and I are in agreement here:

In a change that is both subtle and profound, the Barsoomian “code of chivalry”, which is one of the most striking and memorable aspects of ERB’s world, is essentially absent from the film.  Many of the individual changes in the adaptation relate back to this foundational shift away from the key cultural particulars of ERB’s fictional world.  Those particulars owe much to mankind’s long history of storytelling, as will be illustrated throughout this article.  The chivalric code of honor on ERB’s Mars guides virtually every aspect of civilized Barsoomian life.  Personal behavior, culture, politics and war revolve around a system of principled conduct, rather than mere expediency.


In accordance with this code, duels for the sake of honor and military promotion are common.  A warrior may not respond to an attack with a weapon greater than the weapon wielded by the attacker.  If a warrior is killed in a duel or in fair combat, everything that was his is acquired by the victor.  The only way an airship may be surrendered is if the commanding officer voluntarily leaps off of the deck to his death.  The ruler of a nation can only be replaced if that nation’s council of advisors allows a challenger to engage in a mortal duel with the ruler.  Pledging one’s sword at the feet of another is equivalent to a lifelong promise of allegiance.  The Barsoomian mercenary class, composed of warriors known as panthans, is highly respected and trusted.

 
The swords of Mars are much more important than the guns of Mars, for many reasons.  Swords are both functional and symbolic.  They are intrinsic to the Barsoomian culture . . . and virtually ignored in the movie.  (They are also a vital symbol of male sexuality.  But since Disney de-sexed all the women, why wouldn’t they de-sex the main character, too?)
 
Carter, a superb and unparalleled swordsman, only used blades in the film with dull and brute force–not skill or intelligence.  Now, that’s not a problem if that’s called for.  The aforementioned attack by the Warhoons is a good example of where brute force by Carter was absolutely necessary–and its impact is stunning.
 
But to see Carter spar with an undermatched opponent over his princess’s honor?  To have seen Carter duel, one on one, the mighty Tal Hajus at the climax of the arena scene, instead of bluntly chop his head off in mid-leap?  How cool, how Wow! would that have been?  And how underwhelming did that scene turn out?  The viewer hardly sees the swordstroke that kills the evil Thark, and how understated and underwhelming was the shot of Tal Hajus’ head rolling though the air?  Seriously, I had to look for it when I bought the dvd.

Why would a filmmaker deliberately downplay the power of a scene?
 
That segment of the scene delivered no visceral, emotional or visual impact whatsoever.  The filmmakers downplayed–deliberately–the visual aspects of the action, virtually removing the underlying emotions and meaning.  It wasn’t good vs. evil.  It was just another fight.
 
What a waste.

It seems that Stanton abandoned this code as a means of “updating” the source material, particularly in order to accommodate the modern appetite for cynical and sassy characterizations.  The experience of Barsoom feels blunted and diffused because of those modernized personalities.  Several themes of the novels were altered to allow for the shift, which resulted in a world that was less uniquely Burroughsian.  When something is made less distinct in a nod to “formula” or to modern trends, it runs that much more of a risk of seeming generic or clichéd.

 
Clichéd.  Generic.  Bland.
 
Trite.
 
Dull.
 
We have to ask: Is John Carter truly Andrew Stanton’s vision, a film by an auteur, or was it merely a compromise of Burroughs’ story, made palatable to today’s audience?
Personally, I think the available evidence proves it was the latter, and it seems to me that most of John Carter‘s creative decisions were based not on a dedication to the story, but because of corporate and financial considerations that made paramount the movie’s appeal to the dullest of mainstream audiences, yet still adhered to the agreed-upon budget.
ABLE TO LEAP TALL BUILDINGS
 
With a single bound, Carter can apparently violate the law of gravity.  He’s almost flying in John Carter; that scene where he carries Kanto Kan to Dejah Thoris in her towertop suite sure looks real cool . . . but, man, is it stupid!
 
You can see where young Shuster and Siegel got the ideas for Superman.  Superman, at first, couldn’t fly.  But he sure could leap over tall buildings in a single bound.
 
 
It was all because of the difference in planetary gravities.  Earth’s gravity was heavier than Barsoom’s; Krypton’s was heavier than Earth’s.  Thus, Carter’s and Kal-El’s stronger muscles worked better on lesser-gravity worlds.
 
Hey, the jumping–Sak!–looks great.  But could we be a little more realistic, please?
Leaping as high as a tower, or hundreds of feet into the air and onto a warship, goes far beyond the boundaries of Martian gravity—and credulity.


A FEW OTHER, LITTLE THINGS TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE I COME TO THE REAL PISSER
NUMBER NINE, NUMBER NINE . . .
There’s nothing wrong with the concept of the Ninth Ray—an energy that will not only allow interplanetary transport, but its destructive power is immeasurable—but the special effects that accompanied every shot of the Ninth Ray were about as thrilling and as innovative as watching a bad, Italian Star Wars ripoff from the early ‘80s . . . and that’s exactly where the special FX came from.  Bright blue rays; bright blue lightning; a bright blue glow emanating from a strange device . . . completely derivative from grade Z movies.  Disney could have been more imaginative and dramatic.
FLY ME AWAY
Why were the Barsoomian fliers so over-designed?  I’m sure they were meant to look different and ultra-cool, but instead their appearance has the opposite effect.  The battle fliers look like giant insects with shiny wings.  Why not design an anti-gravity (Eighth Ray) flying battleship that actually LOOKS like it was made for war, death and destruction?
Form follows function.  The shiny metal wings had absolutely no function in the movie (although they were explained in the excised Intro . . . but that doesn’t count.  Only what’s in the movie counts.), and they obscured the purposes of the aircraft.
And Carter’s one-man flier was a steal from the pod racer scene in Return of the Jedi.
SHE’S GOT LEGS
But the thoats Carter and company ride do not.  Seriously.  Did you notice?  There are very few shots where we can tell how many legs these multi-legged beasts really have, including Woola.  I had to look constantly and try to count them.
The alien-ness of the flora and fauna has a huge impact on the reality of the world we’re watching, and by not showing what makes these beasts different makes John Carter feel like just another movie . . . nothing special.
Why didn’t they show the animals in all their beastly glory?  EXCUSE: No need to, because their legs don’t enhance the story.  FACT: CGI and animation cost a lot of money, and Disney didn’t want to spend any more than they had to.
DOPPELDEJAHGANGER
Oh, come on.  Dejah fighting her evil twin, who’s really a shapeshifter?
This is a direct steal from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
If you’re going to steal from Star Trek, why’d it have to be from the worst of the Trek movies?
WTF IS THIS MOVIE CALLED, ANYWAY?
  

Pissant Disney Executive

Listen, boss.  Marketing says we gotta change the title.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

Why?  John Carter of Mars says it all!

Pissant Disney Executive

Yeah, yeah, I agree with you, boss!  But Marketing doesn’t like it.  They say it’s doesn’t skew for some of the demographics.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

What demographics?

Pissant Disney Executive

Women, boss.  Age 16-24.  They say the word Mars in the title will chase off women.  And they got a whole list of movies with Mars in the title that bombed like Hiroshima.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

Those clowns in Marketing really think one word in a title will affect the gross?

Pissant Disney Executive

Their data indicate a negative response to Mars -– anything that evokes sci-fi or aliens.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

Hm.  John Carter of Mars.  It’s accurate, I guess, but . . . uninspiring.  Hey!  Didn’t this project have some other name years ago?

Pissant Disney Executive(looks through notes)

Yeah, yeah.  But that wouldn’t work, either.  A Princess of Mars.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

You know, that’s ain’t bad . . .

Pissant Disney Executive(reading notes)

. . . and before that, it was Under the Moons of Mars.

Disney High Muckety-Muck

Hey!  That’s actually beautiful!

Pissant Disney Executive

Yeah, but then you got that whole Mars thing again . . .

Disney High Muckety-Muck (throws down his Mont Blanc)

I give up!  Just call it John Carter for all I care!  No Mars, no Princess, no nothing!  Maybe the female demographics will think he’s that pretty boy from ER!  Yeah, that’ll bring in the chicks!  And tell the Marketing execs to give themselves raises.  They deserve it for all the hard work they do.

 

 

THE PART WHERE I SAY WHAT SOME JOHN CARTER FANS DON’T WANT TO HEAR . . . AND WILL REFUSE TO EVEN CONSIDER BECAUSE I’M JUST A MEAN, MEAN MAN WHO DOESN’T KNOW ANYTHING, SO THERE.
 
Sorry, kids, but this is it:
Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins were completely miscast.
 
Bottom line.  It’s not that they can’t act—they can.  They’re GREAT actors.  Kitsch was one of the brightest lights on “Friday Night Lights.”   He is sensitive and angry and perhaps the best thing about 2015’s “True Detective” on HBO. Lynn Collins kicked ass in 13 Going on 30, The Lake House, and “True Blood.”  And they both did fine jobs as their respective characters in John Carter.
 
They just didn’t look like the characters at all.
 
Kitsch wasn’t an ideal John Carter, in terms of casting only by appearance, but he was passable.
 

 

 

 

 
Collins, however, appeared older than Dejah Thoris (and perhaps a little older than Carter), and was a completely different body and facial type than ever represented before in art or in text.

And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life… Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

The character of Dejah Thoris was, simply, incomparable (a point that Carter/Burroughs stated on several occasions).  Why did not Disney cast an actress who was also unique . . . also absolutely, 100%, unforgettably incomparable?
 
The reason was Projected Revenue.  To make as much money as they needed to make on a $250,000,000 movie budget, Disney executives had too much say in the production.  They had to make the Projected Revenue figure, and to do that, they ignored the movies that really make it big in Hollywood–groundbreakers and risk takers–and instead followed the Mainstream Edict:
 
TAKE NO CHANCES.
 
And you can be damn sure that Andrew Stanton got the message from on high: With this much money in play, he had to deliver a movie that appealed to the masses, and would be reflected in the gross profit.  Males, females, 16-24, 25-34, families, kids . . .  Stanton knew well the demographics that Disney was going for, and he knew well what kind of homogenized demands Disney made on their filmmakers.  He knew he had to follow the formula.  NO AUTEURS ALLOWED.
 
So why were Collins and Kitsch the stars?  Why were they the figureheads on the front lines?
 
Disney and Stanton followed the corporate line . . . straight down the middle of the road.  They hedged their bets instead of going to extremes.  It’s the Mainstream Edict:  By going too far, by being too different, you risk the chance of alienating your audience.  But by staying in the middle, you cater to the lowest common denominator.  And you also make movies that are easily ignored . . . or forgotten.  Here’s how Zack Snyder, director of Watchmen and Man of Steel looked at the issue in an interview in Japan Times:

For me, a good movie has a pokey feel, and its surface has sharp edges. It’s hard to hold in your hand, but fascinating to look at. The ‘Hollywood committee,’ on the other hand, is always trying to get rid of those edges, to make it softer, lighter, more palatable. Those movies are easier to sit through and accept but once the lights come on you’ve forgotten all about it. It winds up not moving you, and the experience doesn’t stay. The best movies are the ones that cut you a little.

Disney is the epitome of Hollywood by committee.  Safe bets; play to the audience; don’t do anything original or to the extreme.
This wasn’t really Andrew Stanton’s John Carter.  This was Disney’s John Carter.
 
Safe.
 
Palatable.
 
A Hollywood snoozefest.
 
Kitsch and Collins were not the ideal choices to play John Carter and Dejah Thoris, but they were safe choices.  The pair had just come off X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Disney thought they would strike a chord with the movie-going audience that loved X-Men: males age 16-24.  They also thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine would do a lot better at the box office than it did.
 
Kitsch has a look, a swagger, that girls love.  Collins has a natural beauty and grace . . . and, more importantly, her charms are decidedly non-threatening to women.  Anyone sexier, and Disney would be taking the chance on alienating the female audience.
 
They were Disney’s Carter and Dejah, watered down and just a few notches above average.  Were they Stanton’s ideal casting choices?  I have no idea, and as long as Stanton is a Disney/Pixar employee, he won’t be spilling the Barsoomian beans.  But they definitely weren’t anything like the characters pictured in the books, the comic books, the illustrations, the book covers, the newspaper strips . . .
 
Collins and Kitsch weren’t even close.  They were good enough, but not the best.
Aw, hell.  They looked nothing like John Carter and Dejah Thoris at all. 
 
There are a host of reasons Tim Burton’s Superman movie was aborted, but the most telling–and the most blatantly obvious–was that he wanted Nicholas Cage to portray Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton.

Which of these guys, just by looks alone, is Superman?
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Looks do matter.
Sure.  Taylor Kitsch could be John Carter–I mean, he got the job done, didn’t he?  He created his own interpretation of the character—and that’s fine.  That’s what every actor does when he takes on a role.   But why didn’t Disney pick someone who really looked the part?  Why didn’t they choose someone who simply nailed it?
 

 

 

 

Henry Cavill.  He has . . . the Look.


Because of his teen popularity, the choice of Kitsch was not an ideal choice, but he was a decidedly safe choice for the mainstream audience . . . and a certain draw for the young female demographic.

 
Why pick Lynn Collins?  She can definitely act up a storm, and her interpretation of Dejah Thoris is remarkably strong and determined . . . but does she really look the part?
 
Producers knew she could get the job done.  She was attractive and highly talented . . . and safe.
 
Actresses who are incomparable, however, are not safe.  Casting them risks turning off some female moviegoers, as they would be considered almost too attractive.  They’re too sexy.  They’re too powerful.  They’re too singular.  Look at the drumming Megan Fox received when she made it in Hollywood—all because of her looks. If you turn off the female audience, there go half a movie’s profits.
So, you decide: just by looks alone—because some of these ladies are models who have The Look, but who may not be actresses–who could have made a better, undeniably incomparable Dejah Thoris?
 
Mila Kunis

 
Phoebe Tonkin

 
Rosie Jones
 
Georgia May Foote
 
Minka Kelly
 

Olivia Wilde (with Dejah headgear?)

 

Georgia Palmas

 

Kelly Brook

Louise Cliffe

Ana De Armas

 

1400073763_michelle-keegan-lipsy-collection-corrie-mark-wrightMichelle Keegan

emma-rigby-312580651Emma Rigby
margotMargot Robbie
libby powellLibby Powell
By casting Collins, a safe choice, and by wrapping her in garb that concealed her curves, they completely de-sexed the character of Dejah Thoris—a female character who has been a sex goddess and an unparalleled romantic ideal in the minds of male readers since 1912.  Her sensuality, her powerful, feminine essence, her regal personality, make up a large part of the allure of Barsoom—holistically, an enormous part of the series’ magic.  She was more than Carter’s love interest.  She was the reason he fought the Therns, returned to Barsoom, restored the planet, and became, eventually, the Warlord of Mars.  All for the woman he loved.
 
Every male who ever read the Barsoom series yearned in their hearts to find and love and do anything and everything for their very own Dejah Thoris.
 
Sadly, that primal yearning is not elicited at all by John Carter.
 
Disney’s Dejah is not the evocative, sexy, magnificent warrior-princess we all wanted by our sides or in our beds.
 
Disney de-sexed Dejah Thoris to keep the movie safe.  This safe Dejah could have become the newest Disney Princess.  No threat to the female audience.  No curves, no implied sexuality . . . and completely safe for family movie night.
 
Palatable.
 
They used guns more than swords to keep the movie palatable.
 
They dwarfed the Tharks to make them more palatable.
 
They used unoriginal costume designs and art direction to make the movie more palatable.
 
Alien landscapes were eschewed for more earthly landscapes . . . to make them more palatable.
 
And they softened John Carter, a born warrior and swordsman, to make him more palatable.

SO . . . WHAT DID WE END UP WITH?

 
John Carter is a good movie.  A fine movie.
 
But it’s the Campbell’s Soup version.
 
Tasteless and inoffensive.
 
Palatable.
 
THE ONLY SIN IN THE CREATIVE ARTS IS TO BE BORING.
 
 
Disney reaped exactly what they sowed.
 
There will be no sequels.  Why?  Because the financial results of John Carter were merely . . .
 
. . . palatable.
 
________________________________________
 
Some interesting stuff:
 
 
An incredible compendium of Dejah thoris art (and one cosplayer): http://pinterest.com/xanditz/dejah-thoris/

 

4 thoughts on “WTF Happened to John Carter? Critical Thoughts on the Film by a Barsoomian Heretic

  1. Rus … this is tremendous, and much appreciated. It is the most thorough, thoughtful attempt I've seen to fathom what the film-makers could have achieved, and didn't. I will have more to say after digesting it — but I just want you to know at the outset that it's a wonderful thing you've done here. Thanks!

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  2. It is really interesting what men see when they look at a woman and what women see. I thought the actress who played Dejah was stunning, far more beautiful than some of your choices, who look kind of horse faced to me. And I don't dislike Megan Fox for her looks. Far from it. I love the way she looks. She's just a bad actress. Women don't necessarily dislike beauties. We just think when a woman's beauty is superior to her other qualities, and one of those qualities is supposed to be acting ability, we're not going to be fans. I'd have been more than happy with, say, Lily Collins, who is gorgeous and is a very good actress.

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  3. I have to disagree with two major points. The first is a personal opinion, I don't think this movie is very good for reasons too numerous to go into in this post but primarily because it is a piss poor adaptation. Second, I think that the filmmakers are very much to blame for how this movie turned out. Specially Stanton. This movie is his. baby. Disney pretty much left him alone to do what he wanted and he screwed it royally. He took a literally once in a lifetime opportunity(the centennial of A Princess of Mars publication) and ruined it. I do agree however that it could have been so much better if someone else had been in charge.

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