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John Carter (2012)

In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs began publishing the serialisation of what would become the Princess of Mars. In 1912, the individual episodes were collected together and published as the first of the Barsoom novels. As they say, it was the beginning of the history of science fantasy in which escapist recreations of Wild West novels were relocated to planets like Mars. So white heroes would battle Red Indian surrogates and local cattle barons while fending off monsters of different varieties. Not forgetting the need to rescue damsels in distress and have sex with them. In the traditional values novels, it would be necessary for the hero to marry the Princess to facilitate the sex thing. Life could be tough for men one-hundred years ago. ERB, as he’s affectionately known, is acknowledged as the father of this subgenre, it being customary to blame him for setting the bar so low in the creation of this subgenre’s clichés. So this is both the strength and weakness of ERB as source material. He was the “first”, but he’s been endlessly copied. This pushes his ideas so far past their sell-by dates, it’s dangerous to bring them to the screen without giving them a major overhaul to make them more acceptable to the modern audience. The more reverential the film adaptation, the worse it’s likely to be.

 

I had vague hopes John Carter (2012) would be bearable given the choice of scriptwriter and director. Andrew Stanton has been responsible for some of the best animated films of all time. There was a chance some of the inventiveness and wit of Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc and the Toy Stories would find their way into his first live-action work. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed. At 132 minutes in length, this is a leviathan becalmed in turgid waters. However you want to view the original novel, it’s a slight story. Spinning it out beyond the two hour mark is a serious misjudgment. Although no-one actually left the cinema during the showing, there was increasing shuffling and the pale lights of phones and handheld devices indicated people were catching up on the latest emails and chatting with friends. As we emerged blearily into the light, there was a general sense of relief. We looked around for a celebratory T-shirt to confirm we had been there and endured.

Taylor Kitch making the transition from Earthman to sword-wielding barbarian

 

So Taylor Kitch won the competition to be the eponymous John Carter and, truth be told, he does his best. The problem lies in the script. He starts off in the period immediately after the Civil War. The US Cavalry want to recruit him into their ranks to help fight the Red Indians, but he’s been numbed by the death of his wife and is only interested in the pursuit of gold. This gives him the chance to demonstrate his mindless fighting skills. He could just respectfully decline the Yankees’ invitation and then passively resist. Instead, he takes every chance to lash out and is beaten insensible for his troubles. When finally able to break out of the stockade, he gets trapped in a cave and then discovers the First Born Martian technologist who materialises behind him is not bulletproof. Seconds later, he’s holding the transportation key in his hand and finds himself on Barsoom.

Ciaran Hinds and Lynn Collins, father and daughter on the side of light

 

An uncountable number of minutes later, he’s captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and his four-armed buddies. The motion capture/CGI of these creatures is quite good. There’s some plausibility to the way they move without the extra pair of arms getting in the way. To pursue the Wild West analogy, these are the plains Red Indians of Mars. Ignore the twelve feet of height and their green colour. Think Geronimo and his tribes and you’re in the groove. Fortunately Sola (Samantha Morton) gives John Carter a slug of the instant language drink and he’s pitched into the local political scene. Too many minutes later, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris arrives on the scene in full battle mode. She’s being chased by Sab Than (Dominic West) who’s egged on by the First Born’s leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong). To cut the ponderous story down to its essentials, Ciaran Hinds (Tardos Mors — all-round nice guy and Lynn Collins’ Dad) offers appeasement to the evil hordes but, as we might predict, Taylor Kitch and Lynn Collins hit it off and, despite the best efforts of Mark Strong, they defeat these incompetent horde people. To celebrate victory, Earth and Barsoom get married and are poised to claim the secrets of the ninth element. This will enable them to use the Temple of the Sun to rescue Barsoom from imminent destruction through the accelerating water loss. Except, John Carter ends up back on Earth so he can tell ERB his story — a deeply frustrating thing to happen when you’ve just enjoyed your first night of connubial bliss with Lynn Collins.

Mark Strong doing his best to be an evil First Born — the lighting helps

 

The real problem with this film is that it takes itself way too seriously. If there was even a flicker of humour, it would make it bearable — like the absurd distances Carter can jump are treated as normal. But everyone is so worthy on the side of good and the bad guys are really bad, albeit stupid, so it just turns into a parade of the usual suspects. There are a couple of battles in the air as stately galleons pummel each other with different levels of weaponry, there are sword fights, one remarkably ferocious as Carter sees off an entire warrior clan “single-handed” — those four-armed green meanies on horseback don’t stand a chance against our Mexican jumping bean — and an arena in which giant white apes wait to tear off four or six limbs depending on your species. Worse, there’s even a Martian dog that’s imprinted on John Carter at birth and relentlessly pursues him across the face of Mars with a level of loyalty Lassie would have admired. There’s not even any gratuitous nudity or sex. This is a Disney film and nothing family unfriendly can appear on the screen (except a lot of people of different species get hacked to pieces — without too much blood of any colour being seen to be spilled).

 

So if you’re an unreconstructed fan of ERB, you will probably enjoy John Carter. Everyone else should save their money and hope for something better later on in the year.

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award.

 

Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long

February 14, 2012 9 comments

Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long (Night Shade Books, 2012) is written by a man who has some passing familiarity with the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Except, of course, this is a coherent novel whereas ERB either wrote the originals as a serial or separate tales that were later put together and sold as novels. The result is often a less than coherent plot. The initial hero, John Carter, wanders from place to place having to fight off various attacks from weird creatures and evil warlords. He’s the archetypal hero being both brave and blessed with the wisdom of Earth. This enables him to win the hearts of the local women and rise to a position of leadership on Barsoom. Those foreigners could recognise a man of talent and put him to work. In terms of style, these books are easy to parody. The first was written one-hundred years ago and reflects the attitudes of the day, i.e. the innate superiority of the white man no matter where he finds himself. In the case of Barsoom, Carter has a natural physical advantage because of the lighter gravity. He’s therefore stronger than the local coloured folk, a trait that is, to some extent, passed on to his children. The later arrival, Ulysses Paxton, is better endowed in the brain department, although his military experience does come in useful.

Anyway, Nathan Long has a rich vein of material to mine for inspiration but, for the modern audience, there’s a problem. The ERB originals are deeply racist with each colour grouping having different physical, intellectual and cultural characteristics. For example, the Black and Yellow Martians are active slavers, raiding for new recruits and selling them on. In simplistic terms, this makes them evil and cruel whereas the dominant Red Martians are people of honour who fight for truth, justice and the Barsoom way. The issue of slavery was an ironic problem for John Carter to confront given his background as a soldier fighting for the Confederates in the American Civil War. Fortunately, he’d been converted to the Yankee way of thinking and was red hot in the cause of freedom. This did not, of course, change his sexist views. It might have been acceptable to free the slaves but women would always have to know their place.

Nathan Long as Normal Bean

So Nathan Long makes the strategic decision to substitute Jane Carver, a six-foot biker chick, for John Carter. Even in Earth terms, she’s strong and, with her training as an Airborne Ranger, she’s more than able to defend herself against attack. Once she arrives on Waar and acquires the advantage of gravity, not only does she look good without the assistance of a bra, she’s also able to beat the ordinary warrior. Once she gets some training in the use of swords (a serious omission from her Ranger training), she can match the top exponents. In her travels, she meets two races. One we can describe as comparable to tigers with a tail that enables them to rear up and perform tasks using three arms. They are tribal, living the lives of hunter-gatherers, but with a reasonably well-developed society and minor skills in shamanic magic. In cultural terms, Jane Carver has come to this New World so they are the Red Indians out on the prairies. Living more civilised lives in cities, we have the purple “humans”. Naturally, they take one look at Jane’s fair skin and declare her a demon, i.e. doubly damned when you add in the disadvantage of being a woman.

There’s also a fascinating LGBT subtext. As a less civilised world, there’s something of a fixation with sex. Fortunately, this is not interracial but, among the purple ones, more or less anything goes. Poor Sai-Far is treated as a doll to be dressed in gender-inappropriate clothing and given make-up by one of the tiger girls. As a slave he’s bought and abused by an old man. Fortunately, the pirate who captures him is female and in the mood for conventional sex. That’s a relief for him. The love of his life is Wen-Jhai, a somewhat anal young lady, who becomes completely liberated after Jane gives her lessons in a woman’s right to enjoy sex. We have straight sex, gay sex and a threesome. Then there’s Lhan who swings both ways. And Jane who gets no action, what with her being a demon and strong enough to rip the arm (or any other member) off any man attempting unauthorised access. Her only hope is one of the women will take pity on her. We should also mention the concept of open marriage among the nobility. If the men see any lower status women, they can honour them in the usual way without this disturbing the love between equals, i.e. the noble women are expected to accept this lack of fidelity.

Put all this together and Jane Carver of Waar takes itself seriously, showing our heroine as a fish out of water and trying to avoid death at every turn. This is not a parody intent on mocking ERB-style Barsoom fantasy novels. Unlike the originals, this has a coherent plot and good character development. It’s also quite amusing — ERB tends to be humourless — as Jane meets pirates, gets sold into slavery, fights as a gladiator in the arena and is a one-woman swat team in putting down an armed rebellion against the local King. This puts it in the same bracket as a homage to the memory of John Carter (ironically about to be revived yet again, this time as a Hollywood blockbuster). I found it very enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who has read the pulpy “covers” written by L Sprague De Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Christopher Stasheff, John Norman, Michael Moorcock, et al. This is so much better now we have a modern master of fantasy working on the recreation of a Barsoom world.

For a review of the sequel, see Swords of Waar.

As an aside, the artwork from Dave Dorman is also available in true Amazon style.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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