John Carter (2012)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -3; L -1; S/N-1. Running time: 2 hours 12 min.

Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family. Proverbs 18:24

Director Andrew Stanton’s fantasy adventure film comes out at an appropriate time in that this marks the 100th anniversary of the year in which Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter adventure appeared as a magazine serial. He could never have imagined back then when movies were in their infancy that sane men would spend a quarter of a billion dollars to bring his story to life—or, for that matter, that they would be presented so vividly on huge 3-D screens. The film is sure to attract repeat viewers, not just because its complex plot and multitude of characters sometimes leaves viewers confused (at least this one), and thus in need to go back and look again, but also because it is great fun, being a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy, romance, adventure, and even the Western, genres. Yes, “even the Western,” with Carter at first being presented as a troubled former captain in the Confederate forces who treks to the Arizona Territory where a US Army colonel tries to force him to aid in a campaign against the Apache Indians. There’s a bar-room scene, an escape from a jail, a chase, and a confrontation with Indian—all enough to make up a movie by themselves.

But that is not all, Carter seeks refuge from Apache pursuers in a cave where he finds gold and a bizarre medallion that transports him to Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it. Waking up and gazing around an arid landscape very much like that of Arizona, he is puzzled when he tries to walk. His leg muscles are attuned to Earth’s gravity, so the weaker gravity of Mars throws him off balance. What he intends to be a step turns out to be the equivalent of the leap of a broad jumper. The sequence in which he stumbles, falls on his face, and tries again and again to walk is played for laughs. (And yet some critics have said that the film lacks humour!) By the time he learns to use the strength of his muscles properly he is leaping sky high, almost equalling Superman’s “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

When he is soon captured by the four-armed Tharks (10 feet tall with green—yes, green—skin) it is this great ability, as well as his fighting prowess, that earns the Earth-man the respect of their leader Tars Tarkas. (Another example of the film’s humour arises from the first attempt of Tars Tarkas and Carter to introduce themselves when they first meet. After catching onto the ten-foot tall Thark’s name, the Earth-man replies that he is John Carter from Virginia. Tars, misunderstanding him, calls him “Virginia, a mistake repeated many times as Carter is introduced around to members of the tribe.)

Soon the war weary Carter is enmeshed in the affairs of the warring factions of Barsoom, despite his desire to concentrate only on returning to Jasoon (Martian for Earth). Burroughs’ Mars, no, Barsoom, is not the airless planet to which NASA has dispatched the Mars rover, but a planet, as reported earlier, much like the Southwest. Its inhabitants consist not only of the four-armed Tharks, but also of three humanoid groups, the Therns, an advanced race claiming to represent the goddess Issus, the Zodangans, a warlike group forcing themselve upon the last group, the Heliumites.

It is to the latter which Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), daughter of the King of Helium, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), belongs. Her father wants her to marry the King of Zodanga Sab Than (Dominic West), but she demurrs, and being a skillfull warrior herself, her opinion counts. John Carter is unwillingly thrust into the midst of the conflict. Like Han Solo, he is interested only in his own welfaer—until, of course, he becomes acquainted with the Princess, whose beauty would make any man forget about home. I’ll leave it to you to figure out all the intricacies of the plot, though I should mention that Edgar Rice Burroughs is also a character in the two segments that bookend the Mars adventures. He is presented as the favorite nephew of John Carter who, made the executor of the latter’s will, learns of the secret life of Carter when he reads his journal after the funeral.

The special effects are convincing, making up for some of the absurdities of the plot and the genre as well. The first novel I read was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, after which I soon read most of the other 25. However, as a lover of science fiction I could not advance beyond A Princess of Mars. Back then the divide between science fiction and science fantasy was greater than today (now the two being fused together), and the idea of guys flying around in “ air machines” equipped with guns or “blasters” and yet still using swords and bows and arrows in close combat seemed silly. (I wonder if the filmmakers ever saw the irony of the actor’s last name being “ Kitsch” and the nature of their material?) I felt this way while watching this, the first film that is based on the Barsoom novels (unlike the Mars series, there have been 89 Tarzan films, as well as television and comic book series). I thought of the hilarious, though deadly, scene in one of the Indian Jones movies in which a big, burly thug is threatening Indy with a large sword. In many such swashbuckling tales, our hero would have picked up something to defend himself, the result being an exciting duel. Instead, he raises his pistol and shoots the aggressor. End of fight.

Perhaps the best thing about the new film, besides its special effects, is the depiction of the heroine Dejah Thoris, true to the way that Burroughs himself conceived her. Back in 1912, when women in pulp fiction existed only to be rescued or wooed by heroes, the author conceived of her as a powerful person refusing to be used as a pawn by her father and the king who desired her, and in warfare equal to that of any male, thus justifying the title of the serial when published in book form A Princess of Mars. Thus adventure film lovers willing to swallow the many absurdities of the genre can share the film with their daughters as well as their sons.

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