Introduction by Dotar Sojat:
When I saw John Carter the first time, it was a deeply emotional experience for me. This was a movie that has been playing in my mind for 40 years; it was a movie I would have loved to direct; and it was a movie that for me had to be successful. I came out of that first viewing (which was well before any of the real reviews had started to come out) feeling thrilled, but slightly puzzled, as I had found the story a little hard to follow and this had affected my level of engagement, but I laid more of the blame on my self than I did on Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon. I was emotionally charged, distracted by my knowledge of the book, and so I gave the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, rating it 9/10. On repeated viewings I have found much to love about the movie, but have also come to feel that in some of the areas where I gave the director a pass, I might have been a little bit too generous. I say this with love and respect for what Andrew Stanton accomplished, and to be clear — I’m talking about a few points that might cause me to revise my review down from a ‘9’ to 8.5 or 8 — still an extraordinary achievement. But I’ve been so caught up in the many levels of injustice being visited upon this film that I just haven’t felt like getting into a discussion of the true merits and few shortcomings of the film.
So……..with that as background, when last week a very articulate commenter on this site left some notes which resonated, I asked that commenter — who turns out to be German lecturer, political scientist, and playwright Peter Weber — to re-work the comments into a review, which he has graciously done. So for this one the roles are reversed– Peter is the author, and I will offer some comments after others have had a chance to react. There is a great deal of high quality thought that is expressed in this review and I agree with a great deal of it.
How to Relate to the Audience
Why Stanton failed to make “John Carter” really epic
by Peter Weber
After the disappointing performance of “John Carter” at box offices many fans of the movie have started pointing their fingers at Disney, blaming the company for not giving their product the support it deserved and needed to generate major interest. Director Andrew Stanton is generally saved by the fans, since he obviously did such a great labor of love on the subject. Indeed, Stanton’s merits can’t be ignored: he created Burroughs’ Barsoom out of his imagination in a really fantastic way, especially with the Tharks and all the other creatures. He also did an excellent job on correcting certain flaws of the original novel and modernizing the script, trying to sell it to a 21st century youth.
A closer look reveals however that Stanton bears even large part of responsibility, if the movie didn’t work as expected. In few words, his major mistakes were a messy narration and a poor development of the characters, which hampered a closer connection with the audience. This happened due to a line of errors that induced the film director to disregard almost every fundamental rule of the genre.
Now, which genre? The point is that the movie has so many interests (very few of them developed as they deserve), that the lack of focus makes it even hard to define the genre of the film. So better listen to Stanton himself, who informed us that he “approached it like a historical epic”. Take him on parole: John Carter was planned as a historical epos, maybe some kind of “Dances with Tharks” turning into “Braveheart the Conqueror”?! I admit that I would have loved to see that and I’m sure that it would have been huge! But unfortunately Stanton had to explain, first of all, how Carter arrived on Mars, and after he did that so well, he decided to keep it as the main plot, turning his movie into some kind of “John Carter meets Lara Croft”, and send them on a relic hunter mission.
A historic epic
The fact is, however, that such a movie can not be done like the usual James Bond episode, where the general frame is clear and the world won’t change. If you want to do a historical epic, you need to accept the rules of the genre, and these include the need of some deeper conflict on essential values and a major change as the final result (certainly more than just a desired marriage), otherwise all heroism remains meaningless and you better stick to “Aladdin”.
A historic epic needs to develop and divide around some serious conflict, and that means, especially in an unknown world like Barsoom, that you need to make clear who stands for what. To name some examples: the conflict may be on universal cleavages such as humanity/brutality, imperialism/independence, exploitation/environmentalism, scientific illumination/false religions etc.
Now the tragedy is that Stanton had it all at hands, because some of these themes are clearly present in Burroughs’ novels, especially the environmental question (since Barsoom is represented as a dying planet) and the conflict between false prophets and scientific progress (especially in the second novel Gods of Mars). We can’t negate that Stanton’s movie deals with these topics somehow, but we must also state that nothing is treated in a really convincing manner or developed to some result.
The dying planet
The environmental question gets a bit more attention, but ultimately it is only addressed in Matai Shang’s words “We feed off the planet”. Stanton used this well to modernize his plot, to make it “matter”, since Carter doesn’t have to save only Barsoom, but also Earth. But unfortunately he forgot to represent the environmental threat in the pictures. The moving city of Zodanga was probably an attempt to translate it into view, but even this excellent idea remained undeveloped, since it produced no consequences and no cultural cleavage between Heliumites and Zodangans.
Burroughs’ most important device to address the environmental problem, the atmosphere factory, was probably reserved for the second movie, alright. But in the meantime nothing helps us to understand how it may feel to live on a dying planet. If it wasn’t for the words of Matai Shang, nobody could tell why Barsoom is doomed. The Tharks’ nomad life doesn’t seem to present particular hardships (Costner’s Sioux appeared much more a dying nation than these roaming Martians). In the jumbled middle part, on the river Iss, we found even streams of water and nobody questioned why! If at least the flying machines were real ships, with water-turned-air-propellers, we could ask and learn how the planet lost its oceans! Or why Helium and Zodanga are fighting for the scarce water in the remaining canals! Besides, they should do it with incompatible environmental philosophies, but in the movie they even share the same ship design, which appears as an almost incredible waste, if we consider the lost chance for a vaster merchandising campaign.
Science vs. religion
Burroughs’ other important theme, the eternal conflict between scientific progress and religious beliefs, is treated poorly too. Again Stanton’s movie gives it a few lines, but sadly it remains anemic and without representatives. On one side because Matai Shang shows from the first second that he is a religious leader who has no religion at all. And among his opponents because poor Dejah Thoris is left to do all the science alone. She is president of the Helium Scientific Society, alright, but where are the scientists? Give her at least two or three researchers to support her cause. In his later novels Burroughs introduced the slightly mad scientist Ras Thavas who could have been turned into an excellent antagonist for Matai Shangs’s Therns.
One could argue that these are very specific issues and that the younger audience couldn’t care less, as long as they got their joyride with Carter bouncing from ship to ship. Unfortunately, however, all these shortcomings add to a picture that appears very static, where Barsoom remains substantially unchanged. This impression is also confirmed by the lack of development in the career of characters such as Kantos Kan and Tars Tarkas, who appear immediately in their highest rank (as general or jeddak), while the novel had them initially as padwar and vice-jed, with their progress triggered by Carter’s arrival.
That leads us to the main problem, the fact that Stanton’s movie missed even on the human core of Burroughs’ novel, which is “improbable friendship” beyond all racial, cultural, religious and other divides. This is a theme that usually works very well in movies, just look at “E.T.” or the recent French success “The Intouchables”. A movie that evidenced this better than any other was “Dances with Wolves”, telling almost the same story contained in the first half of Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars”. This is the reason why I keep repeating that Burroughs left Stanton an almost perfect invitation for making “Dancing with Tharks”, but Andrew missed the call.
If the human core of your story is “improbable friendship”, you need to develop it, otherwise it remains improbable. This regards Carter’s relation with both, Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris. Due to the fact that Tars Tarkas starts already as Jeddak of Thark, his revenge and rise to power, which is a central plot of the novel, has been omitted from the film, and as a result his befriending with Carter remains undeveloped and unmotivated. Stanton should have known better to trust Burroughs’ original story, using more time and breath to develop his hero’s relations with the Thark and the Princess.
But where “Dances with Wolves” took its time in a slowly developing tale, narrating Hollywood’s most compelling story in more than a decade, Stanton just rushes through. If he really wanted to do a historical epic, it’s a quite curious fact that time is not contemplated in his movie and everything seems to happen the same day. I don’t remember, if we saw a sunset on Mars, but if we did, it left me unimpressed. In any case, when Dejah Thoris explains Carter the solar system, she doesn’t even find the time to show him his homeworld in the nightsky! How can you miss such an occasion for good old romance? Besides that it would have been interesting to learn how Earth/Moon look from Mars.
Accelerating these parts of the movie is already a bad service, but even worse is the fact that Stanton interrupts his tale with scenes from Zodanga showing Sab Than and Matai Shang explaining their evil plans. If all that exposition were really needed, it should have been done by Dejah instructing Carter or the Thark council, and not by that bloated Wikipedia-style introduction on the city states of Barsoom. By these early und unnecessary anticipations Stanton spoils many of the forthcoming moments of magic and awe.
So if you want to know, if the core of our story could have been done better, try to forget for a moment all you have learned about Barsoom and imagine that Carter landed among those green monsters without knowing anything about the surrounding civilizations, with the prospects of spending the rest of his life between these savages, never seeing a friendly face again. I guess this would be much more frightening. But then one day a beautiful girl falls from a ship in the sky. Where is she coming from and how can he ever hope to get her, while he is still a prisoner? Can he even dare to talk to her? From this outlook, we may try to imagine how their first encounter could have been a much more intriguing affair, instructing, but also fun:
A sparkling encounter
TARS TARKAS (introducing): Your savior, Princess, our prisoner Dotar Sojat!
DEJAH THORIS: Kaor! I’m Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium!
JOHN CARTER: Helium? You mean the gas … for balloons?
DEJAH THORIS: Helium is a CITY: Barsoom’s TOP NATION!!!
JOHN CARTER: Never heard of …
DEJAH THORIS: Holy ignorance! Where did you go to school? I mean, even if your teachers were from Zodanga …
JOHN CARTER: No, from Virginia, though I wish I’d had you, Miss … Mam … my Princess …
DEJAH THORIS (lips only): How dare …
JOHN CARTER: Oh, I’m sorry! … My most sincere apologies, … Mylady! … Actually, I wasn’t aware, … Your Highness? … (Instantly) Please, teach me all about your world, Dejah Thoris!
DEJAH THORIS (to Tars Tarkas): You said, Dotar Sojat? Your prisoner?
JOHN CARTER: No, my name is John Carter from Virginia, my Pr … Mylady!
DEJAH THORIS: So, FIRST you should LEARN, Dotar Sojat or John Carter from Virginia, that nobody has the right to call me “my Princess” … unless he has offered his sword and his life to fight for me.
JOHN CARTER: But, … I have fought …
DEJAH THORIS (to Tars Tarkas): I’m afraid, you gave me a hard labor of love, Jeddak, to teach this prisoner how to behave. But since he has saved the daughter of Tardos Mors and his line of thousand Jeddaks from Helium, I just have to give it my very best.
TARS TARKAS: It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it, Princess. Sola will help you for the worst of it.
Such an introduction would have given their relationship not only a bit more sex-appeal, but even a quite different dynamic: the sensation of a huge distance that needs to be bridged, and more precisely from an uncomfortable position of disadvantage, since she’s a proud princess from a powerful nation, while he’s only a strange and ignorant prisoner of a nomad tribe, who has yet a lot to learn.
Care for cleavages
Same as the viewers, by the way, and this is the reason why such a dialogue would have been a good start for a more comprehensible TRAILER. Slightly shortened it would have helped to relate the subject and the protagonists to different categories in the audience: schoolboys, American patriots, timid guys, girls suffering from mindless macho advances, people who didn’t perform too well in school and would have liked to change their teachers, people who never heard of Burroughs’ Barsoom and many more. Yes, since they knew that the movie would be a hard sell, Disney should have tried harder to teach a thing about Barsoom, but: make it fun with John Carter as a companion!
Unfortunately however that didn’t happen and as a result many movie-goers didn’t give a dime for our hero and his princess. To make them care more, it would have required to introduce the characters in a different way, make them more distinctive, and my little dialogue shows how it works. Indeed, when you read it, you should be able to perceive how the audience almost immediately starts to divide, in this case between republicans and monarchists: Republicans relate to John Carter and feel slightly nerved by Dejah’s aristocratic pride, while monarchists relate to Dejah, deploring Carter’s lack of etiquette. These little cleavages are what people really care about and what makes them relate to the figures of a book or a movie.
Now question yourself: did you notice any real cultural difference between John and Dejah? For how they were depicted, they might as well been growing up in the same street! As a result of this careless characterization their interplanetary love story resulted, well, nothing special. Being so similar in attitude, they apparently had no choice than falling in love, while this should have been most likely a process full of incidents and misunderstandings, in other words: a conquest from planet to planet, that can’t rely only on your earth-trained muscles.
A hero actually needs obstacles as a chance to grow, even in his human relations. So he needs to fight to convince his love and the public. In Stanton’s movie it felt instead, as if Carter had no need to convince anyone, because he was already awaited and beloved by almost any other protagonist (Col. Powell, Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris, Tardos Mors,Kantos Kan, maybe even Matai Shang?). Most of the time it was the other way round with people trying to convince him, and he had to do little more than “sak” and sometimes fight. An orphan of ten like Harry Potter may get away with something like that, but a hero of two worlds should face some bigger challenges, shouldn’t he?
Bully the hero
A well known trick of dramatic arts says that, if you want your hero to become really huge, you have to make him smaller in the beginning. To this purpose the enraged princess from above would have been just right, and the effect would have been even bigger, if enhanced by some smart camera-work, showing short glimpses of Dejah’s growing irritation during the pauses and having Carter subsequently dwarved by moving the camera up and away from his face while he utters “Mam … my Princess”.
Maybe we can conclude now that our hero’s first leaps on Barsoom were already a bit too huge? At least they should have been counterbalanced by some psychological humiliation. Do you remember Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs, a key scene for the entire series? Or do you know why Spiderman worked so well? Because they were quite ordinary people in sometimes pretty uncomfortable situations. Tolkien’s Hobbits in Lord of the Rings start as such humble and small “Halflings”, that they manage to grow bigger for the entire course of the trilogy.
It seems that Stanton actually tried to introduce something similar with the scenes in Arizona, and Carter had also some minor humiliation on Barsoom, while he was raised with the little Tharks, but never facing Dejah Thoris. These episodes were actually more fun than real suffering and as a result we never feared that he could take any harm or really lose his beloved to the villain.
Breath and humility
Winding up, we find a movie with excellent imaginative settings, but missing on essential themes of the main plot. Stanton & Co. tried hard to make it matter by following several tested trails of contemporary movies: the weary veteran (see: Avatar), the relic hunters (Lara Croft), the secret agent saving the world (James Bond). They achieved this modernization by anticipating the Therns from the second novel, which was a valid idea, but they slipped when they made them too central.
In the end the total amount of assorted schemes added up to a messy pile that could be solved only with the most obvious conclusion of mediocre sci-fi adventures: the bad guy brawling about his evil deeds. In this case it was Matai Shang, again, who stupidly tells all his plans to Carter before sending him back to Earth. Could our hero have been able to find out by himself? Sorry, no time, he didn’t even get a chance! Here is where a scientific sidekick like Ras Thavas would have been really helpful: By taking (at least partially) the task of unmasking the conspiracy, he would have left the princess and her champion more breath for getting engaged to each other and the audience, instead of using all their precious time and energy to chase after the secret device of the Therns.
In conclusion, if John Carter didn’t relate as expected, it is also because narration actually matters. With all the listed faults it is almost too easy to rip the movie to shreds, though that wouldn’t do it any justice, because after all it is still a very enjoyable experience. The merit for this little wonder goes to Stanton and his team, their imagination and CGI-skills, but he can’t be proud of it, because it was pride that induced his mistake to make it so big and encumbering.
Unfortunately the last point is also a strong argument against a sequel: Stanton’s John Carter is already so huge and complete, that it’s quite hard to imagine how he might grow in a follow-up. I hate to say this and I still hope they’ll give it a chance. I’m pretty sure, indeed, that, when they pass it in TV, people will start calling it a cult, deploring that they cancelled the sequel. But I’m also sure that John Carter needs a humble reboot from more modest origins, if he shall succeed in a second shot.
Peter Weber (born 1961) is a German lecturer, political scientist and playwright living in Italy. Among his publications figure a German language course (Peter Weber, Kultursprache Deutsch, 2012) and a dramatic trilogy on the Peloponnesian War including a political satire on Berlusconi’s rule in Italy (Petreius Hyphantes, Die Demagogen, 2011).