Monday, March 12, 2012
JOHN CARTER (2012)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
JOHN CARTER is a solid pulp-adventure whose only sin is that it doesn't quite manage to make Carter into a new heroic archetype, a la Conan. Despite all the failings of the barbarian's first cinematic foray, that film crystallized something of the harsh "blood and thunder" fantasy of Robert E. Howard, and remains a good touchstone for anyone not interested in reading the originals.
In contrast, although CARTER does keep many essential elements of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian mythology, it is put through something of a Hollywood-izing blender so that the film comes out feeling like just another entry in MoviePulp 101. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I never felt that Carter himself was especially compelling.
To be sure, the task of Andrew Staunton-- director and one of the writer's of the screenplay-- was made more difficult in that Burroughs's original John Carter novel, A PRINCESS OF MARS, had many dated aspects that would have made it difficult to adapt today. Staunton, whose credits include largely Pixar films, chose a pleasing but not especially challenging route to the material.
A large part of Burroughs' introduction of Carter hinges on his Civil War past. Staunton still keeps Carter a "Southern boy," but elides any reference to the controversial war itself. The implication of Burroughs' books is that although Carter is not himself racist, by virtue of his lineage he is like his "brother" Tarzan one of "nature's noblemen," and therefore well suited to sort out the quarrels of a planet of warring primitives. I'm not a fan of heavy-handed Marxist readings of "neocolonial" fiction-- such readings often take on an almost paranoid air-- but a totally faithful adaptation of PRINCESS would have raised such issues, so Staunton was wise to dodge that particular bullet.
Similarly, because Burroughs' original character has little depth-- in the book's opening passages Carter claims he doesn't even know how old he is-- Staunton chose to make this new version of Carter a bereaved widower, turned into a gold-seeking misanthrope by the loss of his wife and child. This too stays a tad on the pedestrian side, though Staunton does give it some resonance with respect to Carter finding new fulfillment with the "princess of Mars," thus keeping true to the essential theme of the book.
Some aspects of the Burroughsian mythology translate better than others. Visually CARTER does well in establishing the barbaric splendor of the Tharks, the Red Martians, and the priesthood of the Holy Therns (who have been turned into major villains rather than the petty religious fanatics of the books). However, Staunton has to shovel so much mythology at the audience so fast that often it seems like a cram-course. One of the most haunting fantasies of the first couple of books deals with Carter's travel down the Martian River of the Dead. In CARTER, there's no sense of mythic resonance in the river; it's just a river that happens to lead Carter to the next plot-point.
The plot is overcomplicated, with a few too many irons in the fire. Staunton's best achievement is with the character interactions between the main protagonists: Carter, Tars Tarkas, Tars' daughter Sola, and the doglike Woola. Dejah Thoris doesn't quite fit into the character-mix as well, though the script strives to upgrade her from Burroughs' helpless damsel-in-distress to both a tough warrior-princess AND a brilliant scientist. If this wasn't enough, CARTER goes even further to staunch feminist objections: tossing out Burroughs' notion of a rigid cultural taboo against men and women fighting one another, many female soldiers are seen in all of the warring factions.
The villains, however, necessarily suffer in comparison: they come on stage and strut and preen, but they've no resonance in themselves.
In conclusion, see it for the outrageous pulp-action and don't worry too much about the plot. If you're a Burroughs fan you'll probably enjoy all the references to the canon, as long as you don't expect it to *be* canonical.