In some ways, I’ve waited my entire life for this movie. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs in my teens and probably read everything that he wrote that was available in print (with a major exception). So I was well familiar with the John Carter series, my favorite of ERB’s works. Everyone knows Tarzan of course. Tarzan is probably one of the most successful characters in movie history. A slightly smaller, but still considerable number may be familiar with his Land That Time Forgot Trilogy, which also spawned movies. The familiarity of John Carter may be well below that. Science fiction fans of a certain age may be familiar with the Confederate Captain who went out to Arizona after the war and ended up on the red planet, but how many people, even science fiction fans under age 30 would have even heard of ERB’s Mars series?
But there was a time when Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the biggest things going in science fiction, long before it was even called science fiction. Even Ronald Reagan counted himself a fan. Burroughs almost singlehandedly created the planetary romance genre of science fiction. Sure it was formulaic; add one dashing Earthborn hero, a beautiful princess, super science, swords, and exotic planetary local, and presto, a rollicking good read.
But, who reads Burroughs anymore? Frankly, who reads anymore? The natural initial entry into reading Burroughs or science fiction in general is the teenage years, but how much reading is getting done by teenagers these days? Teenage boys play video games, lots of them. From their point of view, the enjoyment from reading a book or a story about a space adventure has a more limited payoff than playing a video game where you can almost become the character. Although my son can play Star Wars Old Republic for hours on end, I doubt he would get the same entertainment value from reading an Old Republic book.
There were no video games above the pong level when I was a teenager, so I read books.
But people my age don’t determine what a Hollywood blockbuster is and what isn’t. Young people that go to the movies do, and who is John Carter to them? That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see an article like this:
Hollywood is in a tizzy over the early tracking which just came online this morning for Walt Disney Studios’ John Carter opening March 9th. “Not good. 2 unaided, 53 aware, 27 definitely interested, 3 first choice,” a senior exec at a rival studio emails me. Another writes me,”It just came out. Women of all ages have flat out rejected the film. The tracking for John Carter is shocking for a film that cost over $250 million. This could be the biggest write off of all time.” I’m hearing figures in the neighborhood of $100 million. And the studio isn’t even trying to spin reports of the 3D pic’s bloated budget any more.
The average person may know who Batman is, and would be pulled in to see a movie just on that sort of character name recognition, but few people are going to place the generic name John Carter, to a hero from the pulp era. In fact that was one of the issues I had with the trailers. If you didn’t already know the story, how would you figure out from the trailers what the movie was even about?
The studio didn’t help things by changing the original name, John Carter of Mars, to just… John Carter. At least the “of Mars” part of the title gives you an idea of where the action was taking place, but given the history of Mars movies being bombs I can see how they were lead in that direction.
But there is another problem with having Mars in the title. Who would take a movie like that seriously these days? There is suspension of belief problem with the ERB version of Mars. Even when I was reading Burroughs for the first time, we knew Mars was a dead world. The Mariner Missions showed no breathable atmosphere and no canals. By the time of the Viking landing, we knew not to expect dead seas filled with ochre vegetation, lost cities, or green men. We didn’t even find microbes. In the 21st Century, would anyone really be interested in a movie about a Mars that never was or potentially could be? I was worried that we knew too much about Mars to buy into Burroughs’s version.
So with Disney trying to scrub Mars from any coverage of the movie, or even being clear that this was set in the 19th century, someone watching the trailers on TV with no prior knowledge of Burroughs’s work might confuse this with yet another remake of Conan the Barbarian. Considering how badly last year’s remake bombed at the box office, that wasn’t a good sign.
So going to the theater I was actually more worried about the box office being disappointing than I was worried about the movie being disappointing. But how would I know if the movie would even be understandable to someone not familiar with the Mars that ERB wrote about? So when a friend and I, another Burroughs aficionado, went to the movies to see this film, I brought along my son as a control. I threw in the bribes of 3D tickets and lunch to interest him.
So at the end of the movie, while the credits rolled, my friend began to offer a comment, “You know I…” I immediately shushed him, putting my finger to my lips. For a crazy moment, I thought of putting my finger to his lips and saying something like, “Don’t talk.” Or “Don’t spoil this moment.” It’s one of those things that I think would have been hilarious, but no one else might find it particularly funny at the time. Or ever. I really didn’t need either my son or my friend questioning my sexuality at that moment. I had bigger business.
I wanted my son’s impression. I wanted to know what a teen who was unfamiliar with Burroughs or his Mars story would think of this, uncontaminated by other opinions.
“It was pretty awesome.”
Which is exactly what I was thinking! The Disney accountants may have a right to be worried about making money on this film. The theater we were in was pretty bare. There were probably only a dozen or so other people in theater for this showing. That’s not encouraging for an opening weekend. But if the movie bombs, it won’t be because it’s a bad movie. That movie was fantastic! The special effects were top notch of course, but now days that’s pretty much a given. But what was great was the story itself. This wasn’t merely an adaption of A Princess of Mars, but it is definitely Burroughs’s Barsoom. The changes made make sense, and in some ways, it’s a better story because of it. Unlike the movie promotion, the actual movie makes clear that Carter is on Mars. And in a way, Carter is sort of the Superman of Mars. He comes from a high gravity planet to a low gravity one, giving him freakish strength and the ability to jump incredibly high. His phenomenal strength puts him in the position to be this world’s savior. All he needs is a red cape. But the story of how Captain John Carter makes the journey to wanting to help this world is the crux of the story. The actual romance of this planetary romance proceeds along the traditional lines of the genre, but hey, who can resist a woman who gives you a hard time, and can really wear a fighting harness?
The main actors, Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, were well suited for their roles. I admit at the beginning I was a little unsure that Lynn Collins could pull off the role, but once her character was introduced in the film, I totally bought it. She is Dejah Thoris.
No matter how this film does in the box office, it’s still a great film. It would be a shame if this movie isn’t a blockbuster because it deserves to be.
Oh, the “major exception’ that I never got into?
Tarzan. Never cared for it.