Friday, July 15, 2011

John Carter, or "Dude, where's my Mars?"

"I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness." A Princess of Mars

0 years ago, when I went to see the Peter Jackson directed Fellowship of the Rings, I was amazed by what I was seeing: almost everything was exactly as I imagined it! Even as the films veered in and out of Tolkien's actual story, from a strictly visual standpoint, Jackson's films took the idea of bringing a book to life to an unprecedented level of detail and faithfulness to the source material. It took me several viewings to get pissed off about elves showing up at the Battle of Helms deep, because I was so entranced by just seeing Helms Deep itself, up on there on the giant screen, along with Orthanc, Ents, Nazgul, and everything else I had read been reading about for decades.
In other words, "I knew that I was in Middle Earth".

eeing the trailer for John Carter yesterday was a bit... deflating?

As John Carter opens his eyes in the first couple of seconds, he did not look upon a strange and weird landscape. I certainly did not know that he was on Mars - my first thought was that this was part of the Apache chase scene from the beginning of the book. Because John is obviously in an earthly desert, wearing earthly clothes.

"The building was low, but covered an enormous area. It was constructed of gleaming white marble inlaid with gold and brilliant stones which sparkled and scintillated in the sunlight." A Princess of Mars

The trailer then goes to some aerial shots of vari
ous desert buttes, cliffs, and ridges. It was only after my fourth or fifth viewing of the trailer that I noticed faint traces of windows and balconies and realized, with growing horror, what these are likely supposed to be - the ruined cities of Barsoom! Wait, isn't that where Eegah! was filmed?

Now, I'm all for artistic expression. I get it - film directors have big egos, its almost necessary, it goes hand in hand with the drive necessary to finish projects of such mind-boggling proportions. But I am left wondering exactly what is going on here?

It was a bit dismaying to many of the hard-core fans when the word "Mars" was removed from the title of the film. Unless you've read the books, who the hell knows who "John Carter" is? If a movie came out titled "Joe Harris", I would have no idea whatsoever what the hell that movie would be about. Do you know what "Joe Harris" is about? I don't.

Fortunately, I am a fan and have read the books, so I can live with Mars being removed from the title. What I can't live with, is Mars being remov
ed from the film. I was hoping to see this preview and, like with the LotR films, gasp to myself, "holy crap that looks just like I always imagined it would look! I feel like a 10-yr-old again! This is friggin awesome!".

Nope. No sense of wonder, of magic. No sense of

Then I started reading other bloggers reactions to the trailer, which were overwhelmingly positive. Okay, maybe I'm just being too negative. Maybe I'm viewing it with too much of a cynical eye, and it doesn't actually look that much like Conan with flying pontoon boats.

So I asked my 10-year-old son (the movie buff of the household) to take a look at the trailer (incidentally, he watches every new sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genre trailer immediately when it comes out, but had no idea "John Carter" was anything like that), and he gladly obliged. His first words were "Prince of Persia?". Now, he does not have a derisive or ironic bone in his body. If he said it looked like Prince of Persia, it was because he genuinely thought it looked like that. I never saw this movie, so I checked out the trailer for it.

Now, I'm going to need to you go take a look at this (please make sure you're sitting down for this).

WTF!? Its almost a scene-by-scene duplicate! Except the cities look more like how I envisioned a ruined martian city would look.

My 10-year-old could see this immediately. Why can't Andrew Stanton?

I could go on and nit-pick more, but I guess I've belabored the point enough. I'm just not getting that "Barsoom" feeling. Like I do with this, for instance.

There's still a year of post-production to be done. Maybe I'm overreacting, and in the theater this will all look a lot more like Mars and a lot less like what I saw out the window during my last flight to Vegas. Maybe I've built this up too much in my own mind. Admittedly, if the story sticks closely enough to the book, I should be able to overlook the cosmetic issues. Stanton has expressed an interest in bringing the next two books of ERBs martian tales to the big screen as well. If that's really his intention, I hope there's a lot more Mars in this movie that is readily apparent in the trailer.

Lest anyone think the trailer was a complete disappointment, there are some things I liked too:
- John Carter's martian harness.
- pretty much everything from earth, especially ERB and John's diary and tomb.
- I like the lean look of the Thark, though many facial details are different from the book
- Dejah is pretty, with a world-weary quality I like. I don't mind if she picks up a sword now and then either.
- Whatever the crystal chamber thingy is looks cool. I'm guessing this is maybe the Atmosphere Plant? There's no telepathy in the film, so maybe some other way was needed to unlock the place?
- The ships are pretty cool. I was hoping for a more retro-pulpy look, but these are growing on me.
- The two moons


  1. I hear ya on the "no alien enough" landscape. I'm hoping there's some effects work yet to be done. What scares me though is that I can't imagine Disney releasing a trailer for something that's missing major effects.

  2. The landscape I thought looked OK in some shots and in others I was expecting Harrison Ford and the rest of the Cowboys and Aliens cast to walk in. Hopefully they'll fix it before the movie comes out.

  3. I must admit that, while I still remain optimistic that the finished film will be better and truer to its sources than either The Hobbit or Conan the Barbarian, some of my initial enthusiasm after seeing the trailer is waning.

  4. Hmmm... Other than a certain similarity in palette and timing, I'm not seeing much of an equivalence between the two trailers. Oh, and the ragged, jaw-length hair of the heroes.

    I'm still trying to decide how I feel about the landscapes. I suspect they're trying to build an equivalence between Mars and the American Southwest that might pay off in story dividends, but we'll see.

    The clothes bother me a bit; they're much too typical Hollywood fallen-ancient-Egyptian-meets-Bedouin that we've all seen before. Sure, it makes sense, but it's not unique. Sure it makes sense, but it doesn't grab me as something I haven't seen before.

    The 19th century Earth stuff works really well. The airships work, Helium works (not what I imagined, but it works), what we see of tharks and thoats seems to work. But JC's weapons? They look like movie props, not real weapons. That disturbs me.

  5. I too was a bit bothered by the lack of 'martian' quality of the landscapes. Hope they tweak that in post. I had that exact conversation about the title. Who the hell is John Carter? I know who he is but will the average film-goer? Considering how they took Mars out of the title and the landscape, maybe we're not on Mars at all????

    Beyond that, the other elements looked quite enjoyable.

  6. I have a concern that this is going to be Dances with Tharks.

    I think its always a disservice to the audience to inflict contemporary character traits and attitudes on a book when they weren't present originally.
    Of course, they always do it, and it always says more about the beliefs of the people making the movie, and the time they live in, than it does about the original story or its author.

  7. I have a concern that this is going to be Dances with Tharks.

    So then you're hoping they'll change the story from the books? That's really the story for John Carter, long before it was John Dunbar's or Jake Sully's.

  8. No, I mean I'm afraid they'll spin it in that direction as opposed to the pulp adventure sensibilities of the original.

  9. So, when is Warriors of the Red Planet scheduled to come out?

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  11. Here's the issue:

    As much as we geeks would love to see a 100% faithful adaptation of "A Princess of Mars" with visuals inspired by Michael Weyland and Frank Frazetta's artwork, it's not going to happen. Like it or not, Hollywood is a business and their goal is pretty simple: To make significantly more money from a motion picture than was spent to make it. That means they must make a movie that can appeal to the largest audience possible, especially when that movie is going to require a rather large budget.

    Well, nude Martians will have to be the first thing to go since the MPAA wouldn't give a film where most of the cast is performing naked anything lower than an NC-17 rating. Most american cinema chains refuse to show NC-17. The same for the violence; no massive, gory, bloodbaths in the Thark arenas. This has to be a movie that you can bring the kids (and charge their parents $6.00 a head) to, which means a PG-13 rating, tops. There is a reason why R-rated movies that have a lot of sex, violence, and/or nudity (e.g. horror movies) tend to be low budget flicks: they can afford to have smaller audiences.

    You also have to mindful of 21st Century cultural mores. Let's be honest, ERB was a man of his times which means he was a bit of a racist and a sexist. So we have to tone down the whole "White man from earth comes to save a planet full of non-whites" theme lest you offend anyone who was intelligent enough to notice it. That, and while you still want Dejah Thoris to be sexy (you need that 15-to-35-year-old male demographic), you can't have her just be the demure, submissive sex-object who is constantly being rescued by the big-strong-hero or you'll chase off the female audiences. Give her a sword, put her in a leather one-piece, and let her do some action-stuff too.

    Now, get a good toy contract, a McDonalds tie-in happy meal... Oh! 3-D is popular, let's make it in 3-D... and you've got a potential hit.

    In other words: You need to make a film for Joe Movie-Going Average. You just can't make a profitable multi-million dollar movie aimed to please one small bunch of nerds. If anything, we should be grateful that a major motion picture company is willing to invest in the John Carter name and finally bring the character to the public's attention even if it's not entirely what we hoped for.

    Believe me, we could be a lot worse.