Life on Mars

John Carter of Mars: adapted by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon from the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs; directed by Andrew Stanton; starring Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), James Purefoy (Kantos Kan), and the voices of Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Samantha Morton (Sola), and Polly Walker (Sarkoja) (2012): A lot of critics attacked the source material for this movie as the reason for its North-American box-office failure because, as we all know, we are way smarter and cooler now than we were in 1912, and, like, those old-timey books all sucked, eh? Twilight is so much better.

Well, yeah. In reality, the filmmakers seemed to take cues from the makers of the similarly misguided (though much worse)  Green Lantern movie by highlighting exposition and technobabble, substituting Screenwriting 101 bullet points for the original motivations of the characters, and making some terrible decisions when it came to the computer-generated effects.

Still, I can think of a lot of financially successful science-fiction movies John Carter surpasses: the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy, the last two Matrix movies, the Transformers movies, Iron Man 2…actually, it’s a pretty long list. This isn’t a terrible movie: the acting is pretty much universally solid, the performances far better than anything Lucas elicited for the Stars Wars prequels (or Michael Bay elicited for any of the Transformers movies).

It was originally a simple story, immensely popular for its time: former Confederate soldier finds himself on Mars, meets girl, saves planet. That was the first John Carter novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, entitled Under the Moons of Mars when first serialized and subsequently titled A Princess of Mars for book publication. It was the first novel of the immensely popular Burroughs, who also created Tarzan.

Here, the visuals are striking, well-thought-out, and mostly capture the descriptions from the Burroughs Mars novels. Woola the loyal Frog-dog both looks and acts exactly as he does in the first novel (his species is indeed the fastest land-creature on Mars. or ‘Barsoom’ as the natives call it); the giant, green, six-limbed Tharks look pretty spot-on, though they’ve been made a wee bit shorter than they are in the novels so that they can comfortably share a frame with humans.

However, the filmmakers unwisely chose to go understated with the colouring of the Red Martians, a decision that makes the ability of everyone to figure out that John Carter isn’t from around here quite baffling — he pretty much looks exactly like a Red Martian, who are supposed to have a rich copper hue but instead look as if they’ve all got a mild sunburn.

The worst story-telling decision is the labourious frame tale. It’s partially in the novel as well, but there it takes up a handful of pages while here it takes up nearly a quarter of the movie. Bad decision. Also a bad decision was throwing in material from later Mars novels: much of the technobabble and tedious exposition while on Mars derives entirely from this interpolated material lifted from later in the series, as too does Mark Strong’s villainous White Martian.

Along the way, the filmmakers also throw out some nice character-building material in favour of their own Screenwriting 101 Character Motivation Chart: suddenly John Carter has a wife and child who died during the Civil War…and this explains everything! Including why he’s such a goddamned jerk for the first half of the movie, whereas in the first novel he’s heroic and courteous and a re-civilizing influence on the noble but somewhat degraded Green Martian Tharks (‘Thark’ is a tribal name and not the species name for all Green Martians. Because The More You Know).

The biggest visual miscue, one which really throws one out of the movie and occasionally into muffled hysterics, is the decision to give John Carter the jumping abilities of Superman. The CGI for much of this jumping clearly depicts a John Carter who has no weight whatsoever, making him look like a cartoon character regardless of how finely he’s rendered.

This is again not in the novel — Carter can indeed jump a long way in the books, and he does have super-strength related to the Martians thanks to growing up on a planet with much higher gravity, but he doesn’t defy the laws of motion, action, and reaction. The movie-makers seems to have decided that lower weight also equals lower mass. Or maybe they just fell in love with their goofy visuals. But if you ever end up on Mars or the Moon, remember this basic fact: running into a wall at 100 miles an hour on the Moon will kill you with the same force as doing the same thing on Earth. The Lunar astronauts walked with that weird, cautious jumping motion because it’s dangerous to get yourself going too quickly when you’re not fighting as much gravity.

So it goes. It’s an interesting partial failure, in any event, and certainly not deserving of the hatred poured upon it by the media. Lightly recommended.

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