One of the oddities of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars is that everyone lives for a thousand years or more and are young almost all that time. So Dejah Thoris, her father Mors Kajak and her grandfather Tardos Mors should look like they’re the exact same age. Artists, though, make Tardos Mors much older, which is visual shorthand that works but robs this idea of its novelty.
Since you like John Carter so much, how did you feel about the movie?
Loved it. It
was fun and entertaining, watchable and truly clever…but not a Pixar-style
triumph, which is what you’d expect from the braintrust that created it. And it definitely made some unfortunate storytelling decisions. I
mean, John Carter had three different opening scenes. It also had a
violent action scene intercut with a super-dramatic memory of John Carter’s
family dying, which eliminated the drama from both. FilmCritHulk put it best when he said in his review that the movie overexplained itself, so it simultaneously felt like it was moving at a breakneck pace but also covered very little ground.
As far as a Burroughs adaptation goes it’s very good but not perfect,
but it’s got everything your inner eleven year old wants: the coolest
dog in the world, a four armed best buddy, and winning the hand of a
gorgeous princess with swordfighting.
Fun fact: I was so pumped about a John Carter of Mars movie that I saw it at a midnight showing. You know who was in my theater? The pro wrestler, the Big Show. Thankfully, he did not sit in front of me…but there’s a guy who could have come right from Barsoom!
Nobody in the cast was terrible, but Lynn Collins was absolutely marvelous. She’s a real discovery, and it’s kind of a bummer she hasn’t become a big movie star because she’s so fun, and is good looking at a Shania Twain “hurts to look at/how is she even a real person?” level. I’m reminded of a quote about John Stamos at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget: “you are the most attractive unsuccessful man I’ve ever met!” Seeing her as Dejah Thoris reminds me of when I saw Christopher Reeve as Superman for the first time. Here was a role impossible to cast, but then, someone shows up who looks like they walked off the page.
Unlike other newly upgraded martial heroines, the story actually commits
to her being a great fighter, and she plays a role in the end of the
story and doesn’t lose her martial skills when they’re inconvenient to
the plot (unlike Maid Marian in Prince of Thieves), and she actually
wins fights (unlike Kate Beckinsale’s fake action girl in Van Helsing).
She actually uses her great intelligence in several scenes to figure out
Thern technology and translate inscriptions. She’s less a movie girlfriend and more a Spock-like smart sidekick.
Making Dejah Thoris a supergenius is actually a pretty good substitution
in the story. Previously, Dejah Thoris was captured all the time
because she was the world’s most beautiful woman and often did things
that were self-destructive or moronically out of character, like
suddenly insist she was going to marry Sab Than out of nowhere. If Dejah
Thoris was a scientist on the verge of a great discovery, it makes
sense villains trying to stifle that discovery would try to have her
killed or captured.
I was shocked when I heard she was a scientist, but looking back, that’s a legit alternate interpretation of what she was doing when the Green Men of Thark captured her (atmospheric tests), though the usual interpretation is she was there a royal administrator.
Speaking about the John Carter strictly as an adaptation, which I am better qualified to do:
The best decision the movie made was to fold the bookending frame story (about Edgar Rice Burroughs finding out that his “Uncle Jack” was dead) into the main story. Now the ERB story started as a hook/inciting incident, and the resolution, with John Carter’s return to Barsoom, was a knockout punch. It was the cleverest decision the adaptation chose to make. Also, it was a hoot to see one of the Spy Kids as young Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I wish there were more easter eggs for fans, like in Lord of the Rings or the Marvel movies. Couldn’t we have had some bucktoothed guy in the Zodanga scenes who was Rapas the Ulsio, or a weirdo inventor who might be Fal Sivas? Couldn’t we have had a few guys playing Jetan in the background? No one person in the background in a diamond harness who might be a
Gatholian? No dropped hints of a lost Ptarthian princess who would later
be revealed as Thuvia in the next movie?
At the very least, could one of the scenes in John Carter’s study on earth have had a map of Caspak or maybe a Mangani skull? It doesn’t have to kill the momentum of the film, just do Lord of the Rings did, and have Galadriel wear the ring Narya and not comment on it. More people will get these than you think. After all, when the android Human Torch showed up in Captain America, it drew gasps from the audience I watched the movie with.
Woola worked on screen better than expected. He reminded me of dogs that are ugly, but become adorable because of their love and loyalty, like French Mastiffs (you know, the dog from Turner & Hooch?). I shouldn’t be surprised the best thing about a movie mostly done by the Pixar braintrust were dialogue-free scenes with an adorable but confused animal. What a scene stealing little monster!
In addition, I was afraid they would leave out the detail that Tars Tarkas was Sola’s father, which humanized him and is the emotional core of all the Green Man scenes. But it’s there.
Since Sola knew love and family among otherwise loveless and
unsentimental creatures like the Tharks, Sola stands out as a screwup
who doesn’t fit into her society perfectly. This is the only time the
otherwise drab “sad hero” backstory for John Carter is actually used to
really good effect. Because he recognizes something of himself in the
Also, I liked the idea the Holy Therns were present from the beginning of the series, which
makes perfect sense: who is to say how much they were working in the background
of Princess of Mars? Introducing the Therns early unifies the movies. I like
that the movies took pains to debunk the Therns, which is crucial: they are false gods and there is nothing special about them. In the movie, one was killed early on (to emphasize their mortality), and there is nothing super about their crystal weapon doo-dad: Dejah Thoris was on the verge of discovering it herself, but it failed because of a spy. The great weapon the Holy Therns have is the fanatic devotion of loyal followers, which allows them a lot of spies and the ability to be everywhere at once. They also have the fundamental intransigence of Barsoomians on their side, who straight up won’t believe a region they’ve honored for thousands of generations was a lie and a scam.
Additionally, I like the idea that the subterranean theme of the movie was ecology. If I have a critique of
the Burroughs books, it is that we are told over and over that Barsoom was old
and dying and ancient, but there was no urgency or immediacy attached to that
concept. Nothing was in danger of running out, apart from some business early in the series
with the atmosphere factory.
If I had to identify the one thing that didn’t work, it was a mistake to give energetic, Errol Flynn-like alpha male
John Carter a “sad hero” backstory with a dead family. After all, John Carter
is not an aimless drifter searching for purpose, but a boundless man of energy
and elan keen to try new adventures. The arc could have been tweaked; instead of a war-scarred nihilist, he could have been the kind of guy who didn’t place roots anywhere, making his decision to go back and rescue the Princess from Zodanga meaningful. It would have been an arc truer to the character.
After the movie, it’s very, very interesting to read the Warlord of Mars comics from Dynamite, which are like an alternate universe. Whereas this movie shaved off the weirder Burroughs stuff like John Carter having a son with his princess wife who hatched from an egg, or how all Martians have telepathy, the Warlord of Mars comics brassily double down on all the things the adaptations cut. Everyone being telepathic is a constant plot point (even Burroughs himself forgot about that bit for a few books). A few guys use the Tree of Life all Martian life sprang from to clone, etc.
Oh, hey, one last thing: isn’t it weird the guy they got to be Tardos Mors was older looking? Barsoomians live to be a thousand and stay young looking all that time, so Dejah’s father and grandfather should look the exact same age Dejah does!
“When I was little and we would look up at the stars, and you would tell me of the heroes whose glory was written in the sky, how there was a star up there for me - is this what you imagined would be written on it?”