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John Carter (2012)

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Concept: We can film A Princess of Mars at last.

Before he wrote the first of the books featuring John Clayton, who was raised by African apes after the death of his parents and became 'Tarzan', Edgar Rice Burroughs created another JC deposited in a strange situation: John Carter, veteran of the American Civil War, who is transported to Mars. Both were big successes at the time and while there are fewer sequels to Under the Moons of Mars (as originally serialised) / A Princess of Mars (the title of the book), they are still actually readable, unlike many of the Tarzan series.

They've also been tremendously influential, helping create the 'sword and planet' genre – they're undoubtedly a big reason for Jedi light sabres – and leading to series like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Because the first five books in the series are out of (US) copyright, there's been a straight-to-video feature, but the anticipation for the big budget version has been considerable.

And extended. The first attempt to do it was in the 1930s, with animation – if finished, it would have been the first animated feature film. Disney bought the film rights in the 1980s, but failed to exercise them. With the advent of good enough computer graphics, another studio bought them, but again failed to make the picture (had their original choice of director, Robert Rodriguez, been allowed to do it, it should have been a lot better than this one).

Then Disney bought the rights again, and gave the director of Pixar hits Finding Nemo (which had its moments) and Wall-E (which didn't) the chance to do a film with at least some live action. Where could it go wrong?

What's good: The Martian fauna look good, if not always true to their description in the books – Green Martians are supposed to be fifteen feet high, not about ten, for example, and don't remember seeing them use their extra limbs as feet as well as arms.

They stuck to the time period of the originals, rather than making Carter a modern US sniper.

What's not so good: Argh, the script. It's a mish-mash of elements from the first three books of the series, with some updating – making Dejah Thoris her city state's chief scientist – and the primary problem is that all the intelligence has gone. Let's take the Therns who are introduced in the second book, The Gods of Mars. There, they are a bunch of self-proclaimed gods who live around the valley which they have persuaded the rest of the planet is the entrance to paradise. The journey there is certainly the last one believers make, because the Therns kill or enslave the pilgrims. But the Therns are also fooled regarding religion, because the goddess they believe in is just a member of another Martian race who prey on the Therns.

Clearly all this false gods lying to people about paradise is too dangerous a century on, and here the Therns are the messengers of one goddess, and have incredible powers. As well as being able to jump between planets by speaking a few words while carrying a necklace, the primary example (played by the wasted Mark Strong) spends half his time morphing to appear as different people. It's not clear whether the way he appears as two or more different people at different points in the same scene is supposed to represent what's actually happening or just to remind the audience that the sweet old woman is really nasty Strong.

As in the originals, being from Earth means John Carter's muscles enable him to run faster / jump higher / throw further in the lower Martian gravity (it's just over a third of Earth's). Here, how it's shown varies from the amusing sight of him relearning to walk, to being ignored for most of it, to doing Superman impressions. If Carter was the world record high jumper on Earth in 1912, he'd have been able to jump 2m high, which equates to about 6m on Mars. With a "superhuman effort" he can sometimes do 10m thanks to the lesser density of air (no problems breathing here!), not the 60m or more he does again and again here.

Again, he's not so nice in the originals – a slave owner! – but here, the only substantial reference to his back story is a scene where he discovers the bodies of his wife and child in his burnt out farm house. (Who did it? There's no sign there were ever slaves on his farm, so accident or Yankees?)

The list goes on: poor casting, being plain tedious for stretches, while others are so confusing that if someone familiar with the books is going 'you what?' I have no idea what someone who's first exposure this is to the material will make of it (at least I knew the names).

Music: Forgettable. When the best bit of a score are the titles given to some of the tracks on the soundtrack album (including "A Thern For the Worse", "Get Carter", "Gravity of the Situation", "Thark Side of Barsoom", "Carter They Come, Carter They Fall", "The Second Biggest Apes I've Seen This Month", and "Thernabout") you know you have problems.

Miscellany: I'm pretty sure that the 'sand and pebble' diagram of the solar system which Dejah Thoris uses as part of the 'you're here now' sequence had nine pebbles for planets. Given that Pluto was not discovered when most of the books were written, and has been (rightly) downgraded to a dwarf planet / 'plutoid' since then, are the writers / designers making a feeble attempt to retain Pluto's planetary status, going 'oh, look, wasn't their astronomy better than ours at the time', or showing their own ignorance? (Original: "I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness," says Carter on arrival.)

Overall: OK, Disney were never going to do an entirely faithful adaptation. ERB's Martians were a bit too fond of wandering around with no clothes on for that. But the vast bulk of changes are simply wrong.

The alternative to an almost straight adaptation would have been the tongue-in-cheek camp of the Lorenzo Semple Jr's scripts for Batman (1960s TV and film) and Flash Gordon – both dealing with source material that is basically silly and both vastly more intelligent than this.

TL;DR Read the books

Film: 1.5/5
DVD: ?/5

Written by Ian

March 19th, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in Cinema

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