John Carter of Mars and Everything that’s Wrong with Sci-Fi Movies

Before we beginning, a preface: I updated my Seattle blog post with two pictures, so you should check that out.

A few days ago, Partner decided we should watch a movie he had already seen, the epic flop that is John Carter of Mars.

Based on a series of books by the Guy Who Wrote Tarzan, the John Carter books tell the story of American Civil War veteran John Carter who is beamed up to mars via a Deus ex Machina and proves that white men really can jump! He also marries a martian princess and has assorted dealings with the Red Men, the Black Men, the Yellow Men, and the Green Men (and that thralls or thanes or thalmars or something that that begins with a Th- sound but damned if I’m going to research this post!). I have never read the books, though partner has. I asked if the skin color thing was intended as a commentary on US race relations to which he said “well they all look the same, except for their skin color… and the green men have tusks and four arms.” Take from that what you will, dear reader.

In the movie, we have the Green Men (possibly they are the ones with the Th- name?), the Red Men (Tan white people with red ‘tattoos’ that look like bad spray-tan abs.) And the bald pasty white dudes who apparently have no women and are supposed to wear blonde wigs to hide their bald shame. They can also shapeshift and look good in blue and have what I think are early versions of the Martian Iphone.

Ok so this is already confusing. I caved and went to Wikipedia. The Green Men are Thark, and the pasty blue-robed dudes are Therns. So I was write about the Th thing.

Partner is a big fan of the books, but that sorta pulpy, serialized sci-fi/fantasy stuff are really his cup of tea. I’m not opposed to reading the books, I might be able to enjoy them, I don’t actually know. I have recently become really turned off by the idea of series, I think I’ve just read too many and have come to really, truly appreciate a stand-alone novel, which is not to discount well written series or the people who read and write them. I just need some detox time, though it has cut a lot of sci-fi and fantasy from my literary diet.

I may be unfamiliar with the intricacies of the John Carter novels, but I am not uninitiated into the world of sci-fi. It’s by no means my favorite genre, but some of my favorite authors (J.G. Ballard and Richard Matheson) spend a fair amount of time in the sci-fi pool.

Back to Carter. Partner actually enjoys this movie, as an adaptation (though he did complain a lot about inconsistencies, which is where I got all my John Carter book knowledge) and thinks that it is a good movie. I think it is a thoroughly mediocre movie that had some potential, but manages to sum up a lot of things I hate about sci-fi movies in general and adaptations in particular. Both of us agree that it didn’t deserve all the hate that it got. I was going to put a jab at Twilight in here, but it just felt too cheap.

Sci-fi (and fantasy too) are at their strongest when they treat the world they are in as a fully-fleshed out character. Even in Urban Fantasy, or Sci-Fi set on Earth, things are different from how they really are, and that has to be established in some way. Sci-Fi TV shows have the chance to explore these intricacies over long story arcs, dropping bits of information when it’s relevant. Look at Firefly; the pilot episode isn’t a giant info dump explaining everything about the world dour characters live in, but it does start give us vital information (Mal and Zoe were on the losing side of a war, Alliance vs Independence, a bit about the legal system the Tam’s are evading, Reavers) and then as things continue we’re introduced to ideas like ‘terraforming,’ learn more about the cultural norms of the world, the beliefs of the people, etc. Questions are left unanswered, yes, but you don’t even need a long spread of time to reveal things about the world. Ballard does this excellently in his short stories, his narrators (when they are in the know and not exploring with the reader) drop facts in a short, matter-of-fact fashion that works well. Everyone looking to write anything sci-fi should look to Ballard’s work as inspiration (and anyone wanting to write the bizzarest book of all time can look to Crash for inspiration)

In the John Carter books, it sounds like the world building is done at least adequately. I don’t see how Partner could have made some of the comments and comparisons he did if Burrough’s Barsoom was half-baked.

The Mars of the movie is, however, very half-baked. I felt like I knew nothing about it, aside from the three groups of people not liking each other, but the red men were doing a bunch of infighting? Everyone learns to speak the same language by  drinking Babelfish juice (ahh Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, now that’s my kind of sci-fi). The supposed big issue in the movie is that Deja, Cleavage Princess of Mars, has discovered something called the 9th ray, which the Therns have dibs on, because it is blue, like their robes. They are SO VERY MAD that they decide the red dude they’re controlling has to marry Deja and then KILL HER VERY DEAD so that she cannot use the 9th ray! This plot line is So Very Important, that it’s discussed only once in passing after the movies mid-point, and by the time Taylor Kitsch swings in for his epic shirtless fight scene it has been completely dropped. Good writing there, movie!

The other huge problem is that there is no characterization, for anyone. Maybe some of the Tharks, but everyone else is just a dick because they can be, and Deja is smart and princess, so that’s characterization, and John Carter is a good fighter and he’s tough and crafty and apparently we’re supposed to be sympathetic to him because his wife and child died, and they try to make that a dilemma, except that he forgets about all of them by the time he sees Deja’s cleavage. Partner says there are no wife and child in the books, so really putting them in the movie, where they don’t even get two minutes of screen time and are never directly talked about, means absolutely nothing. The things I can tell you about these characters are so very surface and cliche, they lack even an ounce of depth.

John Carter is an action movie in space. If you want to take it as a mindless, explodey, visually nifty movie, it does work. If you want an illogical action movie, it doe work. It’s when you want a piece of science fiction that the movie doesn’t work. Cut Carter’s half-assed back story and have him simply be a jaded war veteran, make it less about fights and more about a fish out of water trying to figure out what’s going on. Hell, make it Dune (the book not the movie). The real shame is that the minds behind this movie seemed so passionate about the source material in the special features interview. None of that passion translates to the screen (it’s very similar to Troy in that aspect… the source material is there basically just to name plot, setting, and characters and inform nothing else).

It’s not a good movie, and I’m not sure how it got so bungled, but I want everyone interested in science fiction to watch it, examine it, and then use it as a “what not to do” guide.


2 thoughts on “John Carter of Mars and Everything that’s Wrong with Sci-Fi Movies

  1. […] It was an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of someone with special needs, and it gives that character a happy ending. I was initially very put off by the inclusion of the character, on guard for something really offensive to happen, but it didn’t. I suppose the Fratelli’s treatment of their family member was offensive, but we don’t have to look that far into American history to find times when that sort of treatment was the encouraged norm, let alone look at other countries today. I didn’t like The Goonies but think it deserves a lot of praise for having the special needs character be the savior, and be shown as someone harmless and awesome. I wonder if that’s what viewers got out the movie though, and that leaves me feeling uneasy. If he’s taken as a punchline by the audience, then the movie has failed. Partner’s retort to my first impression was “No, that’s Sloth and he’s cool.” I didn’t really believe him, because he told me I’d like the movie (funny, he said the same thing about John Carter).  […]

  2. […] in the vicinity of a year or two ago I wrote a post about how John Carter exemplified almost all of my issues with the Science Fiction f…, with particular attention to the way the world building just sorta… […]

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