Sunday, 10 June 2012

John Carter, rant review, comparison with Dune, Lawrence of Arabia and those classic Doug McClure movies

Buy me a drink and I'll give you the rant that TE Lawrence, John
Carter, Flash Gordon, and Paul Atriedes are all the same character in an
evolving form of the same story. The Eternal Desert Champion.


1917, reports of TE Lawrence, the British officer in the Arab Revolt
arrive in the American press. The same year Edgar Rice Burroughs publishes
 his first novel of the American cavalry officer magically transported to Mars
to unite war ravaged Barsoom. Within a few decades Alex Raymond's Flash 
Gordon tells an approximation of both stories in a graphic form.

By the early 1960s David Lean's classic multi Oscar winning Lawrence of
Arabia has retold the legend again with the addition of messianic
self-doubt, genocidal brutality, political betrayal. Shortly after
Frank Herbert uses this new perspective to write the Dune novels, in
which a messianic outsider finds himself leading a desert revolt and
ultimately provokes galaxy-wide political revolution.

And if you think that's stretching a good theory, later I
 tie in the Burton/Taylor Cleopatra epic into Frank Herbert's thought
processes as well, because I am a tireless swashbuckling defender of
movie lost causes, which, should, bring me to John Carter.

This is the enormously unsuccessful adaptation of the first of Edgar
Rice Burroughs (ERB for fans) Warlord of Mars books.
It is the first live action film by the creator of the classic animations
Wall-E and Finding Nemo. John Carter was apparently his pet
project since childhood, and unfortunately it looks like it.

I was hyped to defend this to the hilt in fashion of a swashbuckling
ERB hero as it seemed the critics were out to ridicule it just out of
spite (see also Watchmen).

Well ERB fans I would lower your expectations further:

In summary
  • Tharks
  • Woola
  • Airships

  • All human actors are stiff to point of ridiculous in a huge waste of abundant acting talent
  • Overall design and costumes not distinct enough
  • Battle scenes are dumb
  • Clunky ERB names make the dialog laughable in places

In detail
I'll decline to comment on the title, which is either so boring it's
bold or, if the story about Hollywood's aversion to the planet Mars is
true, craven cowardice. Supposedly after various movies with the
world' Mars' in the title flopped the word was banned from John Carter
Warlord of Mars, hence just John Carter. Good luck selling that.

John Carter opens with a po faced seriousness worthy of the Amicus 70s
adaptations of ERB novels such as Land That Time Forgot and At the
Earth's Core (all starring Doug McClure), and I would steel yourself here
for further painful comparisons with those cheesy 70s classics.

Just when John Carter has arrived on Barsoom and you think the movie
really is dying badly, Tars Tarkas, the Thark, or green Martian,
rides to the rescue voiced by Willem Defoe. You have to love the
heroism of the Tharks, who will fight for any lost cause and damn near
save this movie. Perhaps because he is dealing with basically animated
characters rather than actors Stanton seems free to run with Tars and
his people and they are by a way the best thing about the movie.

During the constant comparisons you will make with David Lynch's movie
adaptation of Dune, (along with Watchmen another slavish adaptation of
source material) you will conclude that the main problem with that
movie was the botched depiction of the desert loving Fremen.
Ironically in John Carter the desert loving locals are the best thing
about it.

The storyline really is a mess, overloaded with Burroughsian bells and
whistles at the expense of the main plot (about 20 mins is devoted to
ERBs quaint 19th century framing story). Obviously the work of a fan in
control of a project who got so close to the material he couldn't see what
was and wasn't working

Most inexplicable is the look of the movie. There no excuse for John
Carter to look so close to a tired remake of the Star Wars prequels.
One whole arena scene is virtually identical to the best scene in Attack of the
Clones. Excusing it  as it was originally in ERBs book is not good enough, the
writer/director should have been detached enough to change it if the
scene had already been covered elsewhere.

Despite $250 million budget and some great detail Mars still looks like
Arizona/Tatooine. Would a slight red filter have driven the budget
over the edge? (The image at the top is red filtered by me, the original
image is shown at the bottom.)

In a great touch that fills you with early hope for the
movie the Disney magic castle shown at the opening is shown recoloured
in beautiful crimson. A fun period trailer of John Carter available
suggests it would be a lot more fun and look a lot less derivative
just shown in black and white!

Painfully I have to say in the pantheon of ERB film adaptations it
comes below Land That Time Forgot and Greystoke. It's ahead of
infamous clunker At the Earth's Core mainly on $250million of visuals.
Earth's Core is a bad movie, much worse than John Carter, and has some
real disasters monster wise but at least the Iron Mole is a well done
departure, whereas the telegram star gate in John Carter is a yawn.
Bad as it is Earths Core did go its own way visually within the
confines of its budget. Too much of JC could be scenes from any number
of other movies.
At The Earth's Core (1976), goofy and stupid but unmistakable for anything else 
Is the justification for this over familiarity that they are staying
close to the original source? My particular problem with the movie, I
have to say not shared by any of the other bad reviews, is with the
female lead, who has strayed away from the source material in a way
that really should have applied to other areas.

Dejah Thoris is very important to the Mars series. The title of the
first novel is Princess of Mars, and the narrative quest of the first
three books is John Carter tracking her down after she professes love
for him and fate tears them apart. She isn't just the female lead; she
is the equivalent of The One Ring in Tolkien. I'm such a romantic at
12 I wouldn't even start the first book until someone told me Carter
eventually gets the girl.

So, as the main drive for the narrative, getting Dejah right is vital.
Flash Gordon and Paul Atriedes are fighting for politics; John Carter
is driven primarily by love.

So amid a number of big problems with this movie that stays slavishly
loyal to so much, turning Dejah Thoris into an identikit empowered
modern heroine is a big mistake. In her first scene Dejah gives an
impassioned political speech and talks about her latest research into
Barsoomian science.

Dejah Thoris is a scientist politician? really?

Of all the things to change you chose Dejah Thoris? You turned the
alluring practically naked alien fox princess into Princess Leia in
fake tan?
Arthur Adam's comic version of the original DJ 
No-one is going to go back looking for feminist icons in Dejah Thoris,
she is pure tease cheese though out ERBS series. All you'd need is a
half interested Megan Fox covered in jewels.

Lynn Collins, the actress, is good, it takes seconds to find stills of
her demonstrating allure but in John Carter she struggles with a part
that is more Californian fitness instructor rather than alien princess
(let alone scientist). I've seen more exotic women working in Earl's
Court Marks and Spensers.

To make one more excruciating comparison with the Doug McClure films,
for me there is no contest between Lyn Collins as Dejah
Thoris and Caroline Munro in Earth's Core, even when it's obvious
Collins could act Munro right off the screen. There is more of ERBs
pulp sexiness in Munro's smile than there is in the entire of the
scientist/princess/swords women version of Dejah Thoris in John
Caroline Munroe as Princess Dia, in Earth's Core 
The original Dejah Thoris loves John Carter because he is an
honourable, strong warrior from another planet. He raises the bar for
Barsoom's Alpha + male. She could have any guy on her own planet but
chooses as a mate an alien from a place millions of miles away. I'm
guessing the original Dejah isn't a gal who makes decisions with the
scientific or political side of her mind.

John Carter chases Dejah across Barsoom through adventures that would
give Dale Arden a nervous breakdown not because she's
invented the Fifth ray or is some Martian Rosa Luxemburg but because
she is the hottest piece of ass in the solar system and the whole
solar system knows it

Did the studio need a more modern positive female role model ? Sola,
Tars Tarkas's daughter (voiced by Samantha Morton), on the verge of
execution for endlessly rebelling against the cruelty in Thark
society, is one of the few characters in John Carter which genuinely

But Sola is an alien.. and this has to be a sexy female role model. So
instead we have the have the actual sex object female role, Dejah,
changed to be Barsoom's leading scientist. (ERB fan bangs head on

Are we saying modern female audiences couldn't relate to a woman just
using her style and sexual power as a weapon in itself? (As Comic Book
Guy might say - there is no emoticon to express the level of sarcasm
needed to end that question)

If Cleopatra were remade today would the studio insist on making her
an Amazonian scientist?

"I could have just rolled from a rug in front of you Caesar but I
knew you'd prefer to see this glider that I've invented"


  1. "All you'd need is a half interested Megan Fox covered in jewels."
    Classic Thanks Chris!
    Excellent review we must get drunk and watch it some time maybe it will improve with age.
    Or dead brain cells.

  2. Definitely - is your brobof email still working?