A Princess of Mars, A Gem of a Film

I first heard of the character of John Carter on the wonderful website badassoftheweek.com. His Badass of the Week article ended with a recommendation to pick up a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars if you’re ever in the mood for some slightly cheesy and highly entertaining old-school sci-fi. Which is exactly what I did one day, when I discovered a Penguin Classics edition of the book at Barnes and Noble. It caught my eye because it was the only book on that particular shelf with the distinctive black Penguin Classics cover. I thought that was interesting, so when I pulled the book out from the shelf and saw what it was, I remembered that article from Badass of the Week and immediately decided to buy the book. If it’s good enough for Badass of the Week then it is most certainly good enough for me.

I enjoyed the book, which lived up to its billing as slightly cheesy and highly entertaining. It was a fun ride, but what was most surprising about it to me was how much I ended up rooting for Captain Carter. By the time I finished the book I wanted more than anything for him to return to Barsoom and his beloved princess Dejah Thoris. (And yes, I realize that there are five or six books in Burroughs’ Barsoom series, I just haven’t read them yet.) Now before you start to wonder what the hell I am talking about, let me just say for now that Barsoom is the Martian name for the planet Mars. That sounded a little redundant, but it will make more sense later.

I was excited to learn that a film adaptation was in the works, and that it was the live-action debut of Andrew Stanton, who previously directed some wonderful Pixar films, including “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” my personal favorite Pixar movie (how I love that sad-eyed little robot). It also cost an immense amount of money to make, reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million, making it one of the most expensive films of all time. It was one of those films that had been in development hell for a long time, with a whole bunch of different directors attached to it before it finally ended up getting made, with Taylor Kitsch as John Carter and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. (Coincidentally, both Kitsch and Collins starred in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” with Kitsch as Gambit and Collins as Wolverine’s ill-fated girlfriend, the wonderfully-named Kayla Silverfox.)

There was a lot of negative buildup leading up to the film’s release. People seemed to want it to fail, which really made me sad. Do we live in a society where a film costing a quarter of a billion dollars and requiring the efforts of THOUSANDS of talented people is released, and all people want to hear about is how bad it is? Arrrrgghhh, come on, people. GIVE THE DAMN MOVIE A CHANCE!!! It bugs the absolute HELL out of me when people are like “THIS MOVIE IS GOIN TO SUCK LOLZ” without even giving it a chance. It ALSO annoys me when people are like “This movie was so bad I turned it off after 20 minutes. One of the worst movies ever.” IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE WHOLE MOVIE THEN YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO PASS JUDGMENT ON IT AND THEREFORE YOUR OPINION IS INVALID!!!!

Okay, whew. Sorry about that. I kind of had to let that out. I promise to stop writing in all caps now. I just don’t understand why people want things like this to fail. It took years of hard work by thousands of people (I haven’t counted, but seriously, there must be thousands of names in the credits), and nobody cares. Sigh.

Alright, I’m getting off my soap box now. On to the actual film. I, for one, loved the hell out of it. The setup is pretty basic: world-weary Civil War veteran Captain John Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars (aka Barsoom), where he discovers another civil war of sorts between two groups of Red Martians, who look a lot like humans but, as you may have guessed, have slightly redder skin. There are also these four-armed green dudes called Tharks, who kind of want to stay out of the whole civil war thing. The Tharks in the film are slightly reminiscent of the Na’vi in “Avatar,” with their elongated body structure and the fact that they’re all seven to eight feet tall. The main difference is that Tharks are green, have four arms and these awesome tusks sprouting out of their faces. Needless to say, I am a big fan of Tharks.

There’s a really bad dude named Sab Than (played with grinning villainy by Dominic West, whom you may remember as that corrupt douchebag senator from “300”) who has been destroying cities and causing all kinds of mischief, and the only way to get him to knock it off is to marry off the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris to him, thereby uniting the two kingdoms of Zodanga and Helium. Dejah is understandably not very pleased with this situation, since Sab Than is pretty much a total raging murderous douchebag of epic proportions, but she reluctantly agrees to marry him to forge peace between the kingdoms.

I would just like to take a moment here to say that Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris is so heart-stoppingly beautiful in this film that it is completely understandable why pretty much everyone in the movie wants to marry her. I wanted to marry her too. I would also like to point out that in Burroughs’ novel she was pretty much naked all the time. You know, just sayin’. This being a Disney movie, I kind of understand why they didn’t go that route.

I’m not going to go into a whole lot more detail regarding the plot of the film. For one, the above summary sums up the main conflict of the story (I think) pretty well. It’s fairly simple really, kind of like “The Princess Bride,” but in space. Also, there are a couple of subplots that don’t really make a whole lot of sense. I’ve watched the film twice now and I still have really no idea what the deal was with Mark Strong’s character, aside from the fact that he was evil (as usual), and also very bald.

The movie drew a lot of comparisons to “Avatar,” which makes some sense, I suppose. Similar setup, similar visual style. Some (stupid) people thought it was ripping off Avatar, which is stupid because Burroughs’ book was published in 1912 (making the release of the film in 2012 fall on the centenary of John Carter’s creation). If anything, James Cameron ripped off John Carter, not the other way around.

Given the choice between the two films, I would take John Carter any day of the week. I liked it far more than Avatar. The characters have actual depth to them, they’re not just cardboard cutouts. You actually care about what happens to them. Re-watching Avatar a while ago, I found that I couldn’t really care less about Jake Sully, and actually ended up rooting for the military guys, because I was so sick of the blue people’s incessant tree-hugging, I kind of wanted them all to get blown up.

But I never felt that way about John Carter. I was rooting for him and Dejah Thoris the whole way through, and I was (SPOILER ALERT) heartbroken when they were separated at the end, only to feel that I was somehow made whole again when they were reunited.

I also really liked the look of the film. Every penny of that enormous budget is evident in the movie, from the sets to the costumes to the visual effects, which all blend together to create a seamless and completely immersive experience. It made me want to live in its world, which I think is the highest praise you could give to a fictional universe. I saw it in 3D in the theater, and for once the 3D actually added to the experience instead of detracting from it, or simply not adding much at all. I left the theater with that warm feeling you get when something really resonates with you, and I felt that way again when I watched the film for the second time just last night (on Blu-Ray of course, since basic DVD really wouldn’t do this film justice).

I understand that the movie got a very mixed response, and that it was considered a failure at the box office. I for one count myself among the film’s most staunch supporters, and hope that it will at least manage to become a cult classic down the road. It’s kind of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western by way of Star Trek, and what’s not to like about that?

I understand that not everyone liked or will like this film as much as I do, but please, give it a chance. Don’t think of it as just “that big Disney flop.” You may just be pleasantly surprised. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a fantastic adventure that I enjoyed every minute of. Thank you for this film, Andrew Stanton. I for one think it’s a treasure, and if I could I would give you a hug.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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One comment on “A Princess of Mars, A Gem of a Film

  1. Robin Maass says:

    Great writing with lots of heart! I am ready to watch John Carter!

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