Last night I returned to a place I haven’t visited in many years — Barsoom. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ colorful and stylized Mars is wonderfully brought to life in Disney’s John Carter. I saw it with my Dad, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. The film is faithful to the spirit of the Burroughs’ novels (while making a mash of many of the details), capturing most importantly their sense of fun and wonder. It has a terrific look — a comic book or Frazetta cover come to life. I didn’t even mind the 3D, although I don’t think it added that much.
It has been noted that the character John Carter is a precursor to (and likely one of the inspirations of) Superman. The Earth man on Mars gets the same benefit of a body designed for more powerful gravity as a Kryptonian gets on Earth. He’s super-strong, super-fast, and able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Of course, whatever gravitational benefit a human would actually get on Mars in grossly exaggerated in the novels, preposterously so in this movie. But so what? This Mars has almost nothing to do with the real Mars, anyway.
Just as John Carter is an iconic and inspirational character, I believe the movie John Carter can serve as an inspiration in its own right. Unfortunately, it comes too late to inspire the individuals I would most like to see inspired by it. For example, it’s too bad that James Cameron didn’t see John Carter before making Avatar. He might have had an epiphany about how complex and conflicted alien societies might be. And instead of a heavy-handed story about evil white men coming to rape the noble savages who live in perfect harmony with nature, he might have entertained the idea that people on other planets could have environmental problems of their own — and that a cautionary tale about neglect of what’s important (which John Carter allows itself to be in the most subtle of ways) makes for a good back story to an otherwise compelling and engaging story.
But the real shame is that George Lucas wasn’t able to watch John Carter before making the Star Wars prequels. Here’s a film that lays out special effects and action sequences no more lavishly than Lucas did in any of those three movies (perhaps even a bit more sparsely), and yet is an order of magnitude more entertaining than any of them. Why? Let’s look at a few important reasons:
1. A recognizable protagonist whom we’re rooting for. In the prequels, who is that, exactly?
2. Interesting characters at every level. The characters who are portrayed primarily as visual effects — the Tharks — are interesting people in their own right. In the prequels, even the characters portrayed by human actors — some really good ones! — are wooden and dull.
3. A story that goes someplace and that affirms humanity — by way of one human and a bunch of Martians. The Star Wars prequels have no place to take us but downfall and despair. That’s the corner that Lucas needlessly painted himself into by making the bad guy the center of the story. (Oh, and James Cameron would have benefited from the “affirming humanity” part, too.)
In fact, John Carter is a lot like Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (a movie I till think of as just plain Star Wars.)
Lucas once knew how to tell a story like that, and he lost it. Here’s hoping that the example of John Carter can help keep the next would-be Lucas or Cameron on track.