John Carter - A Review
John Carter came out the same year as Marvel’s The Avengers, which walked away with more praise from critics and audiences. While I love The Avengers dearly, the fact that John Carter was allowed to falter and fail at the box office by Disney remains a crying shame. This film is a modern classic.
Everything in the film is directed toward making John Carter a timeless sci-fi/fantasy movie. Andrew Stanton – creator of Finding Nemo and WALL-E – outdid himself in bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story to life. Although there are some concessions made for a modern audience, those hardly dent the effort put into making this homage to space opera storytelling.
Having re-watched John Carter, I was struck again by how lavishly it was filmed. We do not see this level of craftsmanship in films anymore, since movies are more about spectacle than establishing an otherworldly setting. Stanton’s love for Burroughs’ books shows in every scene in the movie. The vistas, the CGI, the practical effects, the acting all combine to put the viewer directly on Barsoom. Not Mars; as the voiceover introducing the story says, that is the airless red planet we know. The red planet in the movie is another world entirely.
Good films are able to transport viewers to their locations and make them feel like the place is real. John Carter achieves that effect by taking everything about the nature of the story seriously even when it uses or seems to be making fun of the titular character. For instance, the sequence where Carter learns to walk and leap across Barsoom is hilarious, but it also takes the concepts offered in Burroughs’ books at face value. It does not mock Carter for learning what he can do, only points out that the process of discovery is quite amusing from an outside perspective.
Although the Barsoomians’ native telepathy is not a factor in the movie, the film leaves their cultures intact. Barsoom is a world in steep decline, its oceans having vanished long ago while its remaining rivers are drying up. This makes sustaining a sizable population difficult – hence the Tharks’ practice of infanticide and Princess Deja Thoris’ desperate search for a limitless energy source to rejuvenate her homeworld.
The make-up and costumes only help to enhance the feeling that Carter is on another world at the same time they remind viewers that the hero and heroine come from completely different cultures. John Carter’s manners, his concern for Deja and suggestion that she stay behind him “when things get dangerous,” along with his compassion are things taken for granted in the West even today. Yes, they are mocked regularly now, but such derision could not exist in a society that did not at least remember these proprieties.
Additionally, John Carter does not make fun of the titular hero’s “old-fashioned” manners or his masculinity. While it takes pains to show that Deja Thoris can fight, she never belittles the Earthman for making an effort to protect her, or for rescuing her. She teases him, but it is clearly just that: banter, something meant to show she appreciates his concern for her. A far cry from The Force Awakens’ infamous scenes where Rey shouts: “Stop holding my hand!”
On that point, John Carter never avoids the fact that its hero abides by his culture, despite adapting to at least some of Barsoom’s customs. Although he uses or abides by the Martians’ traditions when necessary, particularly toward the end of the film, for the most part he behaves like a Christian gentleman from the American southeast. He offers a salute to Tars Tarkas – who adopts the practice himself later on – and rescues the “dog” Woola when the beast is being abused in the middle of a party. When he proposes to Deja Thoris toward the end of the film, he does so in the traditional Christian manner, not the Barsoomian way.
Some viewers may find that a bit weird. Carter is currently living amongst aliens – some of whom are human enough in appearance, certainly – who have a different culture than his. Shouldn’t he be behaving according to their culture, not his own? Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire did this with Milo Thatch and Kida. Why doesn’t John Carter?
Carter refrains from this complete assimilation to Martian culture because it is precisely this difference between John and the natives of Barsoom that allows them to achieve victory over Zodanga, as well as thwart the Thern. The hero’s American way of thinking coupled with his Christian upbringing makes John Carter a foe to be reckoned with, and no one who opposes him – be they Thark, Red Martian, or Thern – can compete with him because of his grounding in and determination to act according to his native civilization. It is a refreshing reminder of American exceptionalism and the power of Christian culture.
John Carter is an overlooked sci-fi gem that brings the wonder, beauty, and depth of Edgar Rice Burrough’s work to the silver screen. It is not a perfect adaptation, but it is a loving one, and those are far too few these days to be dismissed. Andrew Stanton reportedly adored the books after reading them in his youth, and his admiration for the novels shines through in this film. Once again, it must be stated that it is a shame that the sequels will never be filmed and produced.
In a world that has forgotten both Christian culture and American exceptionalism, John Carter is a worthy addition to any sci-fi fan’s film collection. This jewel is too good to lose, especially since it serves as an able reminder of what American filmmaking can be when the people in charge love their craft and the story they are presenting to audiences. So if you need something entertaining to watch or are looking for the right gift for a friend or family member, choose this movie. It will certainly be a conversation starter!
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