Disney’s mega-bomb tends to get a more sympathetic hearing a decade on, applauding all the things it did right, rather than those it got wrong. “The innovative now looks derivative” was frequently thrown its way, given how Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp had informed so much popular cinema (this was reputedly why Robert Zemeckis demurred a suggestion he adapt the Barsoom series in the early 2000s). I suspect John Carter, in the form it is, could have been a hit, though, even given that director Andrew Stanton’s approach seems more diligent than passionate. To become one, though, it really did need a charismatic lead actor (TBH, I could argue the same for the recent Dune, both in terms of approach and lead, and yet that earned itself Part II… just).
2012 was the year they tried to make Taylor Kitsch a star. The wheres and whyfors of such processes are opaque, but both Disney and Universal (Battleship) were on his bandwagon, and in both cases no one wanted to know. In the case of Battleship, that can at least be laid at the door of an out-and-out stinker of a movie. John Carter is fine, in and of itself, but it desperately needs someone to infuse it with personality or sensibility. That wasn’t going to come from its director, so it needed to be its star. Particularly as the John Carter of the movie is a bit of a blank hero (even given a haunted backstory etc). You need someone who can do a lot with a little, just by being there, and there aren’t many of those around. Certainly not a walking haircare advert who’s prettier than his female co-star. You also need someone who looks like he might have lived in the nineteenth century. And while I’m being personal, I know Kitsch isn’t a short-arse, so why does he look it? Plus, his fake beard sucks. Basically, John Carter needed an inspired, Russell-Crowe-in-Gladiator choice for its lead.
There’s also that you need to have some idea how to sell a movie. Getting cold feet over the title because Mars Needs Moms bombed is about the lamest reasoning ever. Bizarrely, though, studios have repeatedly favoured the blandest of bland titles for their movies over the past decade (Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne). John Carter of Mars stood out. A Princess of Mars is better still (Stanton didn’t like that as he didn’t think boys would see it; if only he’d been as circumspect when casting Kitsch. Doublethink is also said to have seen Mars removed because girls – who loved Taylor, apparently – wouldn’t be mad-keen on the SF associations). All told, Stanton comes across as a bit of an ass on the movie’s Wiki page.
Still, all this could have been worse. A pulpy take on Barsoom might have been fun, but Robert Rodriguez is more puree than pulp, and in concert with Harry Knowles – back at the crucially unfortunate moment when studios were listening to self-appointed Internet fanboys – as “adviser”, I suspect we dodged a bullet. The intimation was that this would have been more authentic to the spirit of Burroughs’ rudey-nudey Red-Planet explorer, replete with lashings of T&A; Stanton labelled the Frazetta cover style “very sexist and it’s very male, fanboy dominated”, which sounds like a direct rebuke of the stalled Knowles effort from a guy whose biggest successes revolved around family-friendly goldfish and robots.
There had been earlier development hells for Barsoom – a 1930s animated feature that fell through because MGM thought the idea beyond certain audience demographics; Ray Harryhausen contemplated a Mars jaunt; so did John Boorman; John McTiernan and Tom Cruise came close at Disney in the late-80s/early-90s; Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’s Kerry Conran had a snoop after Rodriguez; Jon Favreau went forward with a period setting and practical-as-possible effects until Paramount nixed it – almost all of which would have borne more semblance to Frazetti than Pixar. Perhaps something somewhere in between, that knows sexiness doesn’t necessarily equate to sexist-ness, would have been the ticket.
Carter, like Burroughs’ Tarzan, is essentially a white-saviour – John Clayton is also a JC, like another saviour – narrative, but one they (Disney) could get nodded through relatively unscathed, by virtue of it being set on an alien planet (with green skinned and red-skinned races). Burroughs, like many an author of the era, is recorded as a proponent of eugenics (and also scientific racism). While one might assume, therefore, that he simply got in line to affirm whatever it was the Elite wished to sell at that point (his brothers attended Yale), it seems he was actually a White Hat. This may account for the conceptual disparities in his imagining. Mars seems highly fanciful now, but one might argue it was based on “cutting-edge” science of the time. I mean, it was Mars as a physical spheroid, one that was becoming increasingly desolate/dying. It also had canals (channels) and boasted a version of terraforming (the atmosphere plant).
More persuasively, there are curiosities, ones more in line with the unfettered imaginings that saw the author develop series around the Hollow Earth and unmapped Earth. Just what is going on, whereby Carter “astrally projects” to Mars and inhabits a ready-and-waiting body? Or, per the movie, a copy: “You’re saying I was telegraphed here. I’m a copy of myself?” Carter appears to have died on Earth (where he is over 100 but looks 30, and has no memory of his childhood). When another fellow, Ulysses Paxton, travels to Mars (in The Master Mind of Mars), he finds he has legs again. Mars is portrayed as a physical planet, whereby the Martians could have come to Earth on their ships using the ninth ray, but the characteristics of Carter’s visitation are more in line with a non-physical or etheric state (one might compare this to some of Corey Goode’s travels as a rep for the Sphere Being Alliance, such as to the Moon. A physical trip there would have been difficult, given it’s plasma). Given the non-3D properties of the Red Planet, this would surely be closer to the way one would actually to visit its “environs”. The non-corporeal as the best guarantee for universal travel.
Indeed, it’s curious that John Carter arrives on Barsoom and is immediately possessed of super strength and can fly (like in dreams). Which is pretty much also the case for Jake Sully inhabiting his avatar in Avatar. As testosterone-eschewing Jimbo said “With Avatar, I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mould, like John Carter of Mars – a soldier goes to Mars”.
Leaving aside the physicality of the place, what to make of the Mars power structure, and more especially the secretly puppeteering Therns? Bald imposing guys, you know, a bit like Anunnaki (Mark Strong bears a slight resemblance, albeit significantly less steroidal, to the Engineers seen in Prometheus, released the same year). In the second movie, there would have been “revelations that a technologically advanced race living beneath the surface was controlling the air and water supply to keep the planet alive”.
The Therns have specialised in deceiving the Barsoomians about their past. They also indulge in eating the inhabitants, who received communications from the Therns that are accepted as divine wisdom. The religious structure, then, is not to be trusted, but more than that, the paradigm is artificially steered; in the movie, we see this via aliens among us – “We don’t cause the destruction of the world, Captain Carter, we simply manage it. Feed off it, if you like” – accompanied by an analogy that sounds not a little like loosh harvesting. These Therns also have secret structures on Earth, and transport is somewhat redolent of passing through portals.
It has been suggested Burroughs may have been influenced by theosophy and its concept of root races. Theosophy represented the flagship for rehabilitating the Luciferian doctrine, which would make Barsoom quite germane (the Therns create a religion, as do the Elite). Albeit, this piece makes comparisons with the Catholic Church (and the pro-Mormon). Further still, “Burroughs’ Martians were essentially theosophical Atlanteans and Lemurians, removed to a Mars based upon the then popular theories of astronomer Percival Lowell…” Which is to indicate Burroughs was not writing in a vacuum, and that absorbing ideas from movements that may have been of less-than-positive design does not in itself indicate that he was of similar intent.
Pretty much anything in the movie featuring Strong is strong (ahem), even given that Dominic West isn’t at his best as their vassal Sab Than (James Purefoy meanwhile is entirely underused as Kantos Kan). There are decent motion-capture performances from Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton as Tharks, – and hissable Thark ones from Polly Walker and Thomas Haden Church – but I’m never fully on board with the design work and rendering (I’d say the same of the Na’vi, though, so what do I know).
That also extends to the picture’s bigger picture. It isn’t that what’s on screen is bad (although the occasional action sequence is overly CG-heavy), and there’s even some pretty good stuff (the arena fight is a lot of fun), but someone needed to come up with a way to make Mars look interesting, and it isn’t, whether we’re seeing a version of it on a soundstage or in the Californian desert. It doesn’t much matter when Mars isn’t interesting for Matt Damon, but this is supposed to be a fantasy. The Dune Sea only took up thirty minutes in Return of the Jedi. Here, it’s the whole movie (again, you can argue similarly for Dune, although Villeneuve has a bolder, if more spartan, visual sense). It might be a job to make endless sand exotic, but David Lean managed it, and you should at least have a jolly good try.
John Carter is also browbeaten by an opening sequence that betrays all the issues involved in trying to make an adaptation work. There’s a decent payoff with the backend (in the movies, Carter needs a medallion to travel), but those telling an unmoved Stanton he should start with Carter in situ on Mars undeniably had a point; we have to labour through a disillusioned Carter, having been on the wrong side in the American Civil War, now called up by the Union to fight the Apache.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume all these early-century SF and fantasy writers, shapers of the imagination as they were, were put up to bringing those ideas forward in one way or another. Burroughs may well have been courted by those who pulled the strings, but it seems he wasn’t so pliable to their doctrine. John Carter’s eventual materialisation as a movie rather illustrated that the key to such storytelling was less exclusivity to its time than reliance on someone who could captivate through worldbuilding. The takeaway would have been of the received wisdom end, though (that Burroughs had already been riffed umpteen times by Hollywood). The period SF movie ought to be a no-brainer, in much the way Indy is/was – Stanton pitched Indiana Jones on Mars, but how many people would have flocked to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with Taylor Kitsch as Indy? – but whenever someone attempts it (2002’s The Time Machine), the results seem to flounder.