Thursday, January 12, 2012


Back when I was in grade school, my father worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory during a time when they were beginning to explore the nearby planets in our solar system. He used to bring home photos of flybys over Jupiter from the Pioneer 10 and 11 satellites and had a whole collection of Mars and Venus flybys from the Mariner days. These were high quality photo prints which I was able to grasp were not only historically important but rare to obtain in the format I was seeing them. I can still remember the day when he brought home a set of photos of the surface of Mars, the first ever taken, from the Viking program. Viking had two vehicles, an Orbiter and a Lander, and my Dad was on the Mars Lander team. You just don't forget things like that.

Mars came to my mind again recently when reading an article that mentioned the upcoming release of a sci-fi film called John Carter of Mars. What got my attention was that he talked as if it was a long awaited event, and yet I hadn't heard of it before. I looked it up and discovered it is an old series from the first half of the 20th century created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although that name sounded really familiar, I couldn't quite put a finger on it, so it was back to googling again and then a surprise when I found the origin of my recollection - Burroughs also created the original Tarzan series! That put the upcoming film in a new light, because it is clear now that we have a story that has some staying power, written by someone with proven success. According to the Wikipedia link, Burroughs grew up during the pulp fiction era of American literature and actually wrote a great number of science fictions stories and serials which were published in parallel with his Tarzan adventure series. Long awaited indeed.

It's kind of amazing how much of a role our nearest planetary neighbor has played in the history of sci-fi literature. I managed to find this fairly comprehensive survey of this very topic. What's really neat about the list is that, for each entry, it describes how the red planet itself and its Martian inhabitants were depicted. Two things about it stick out for me. One is the wildly speculative nature of works prior to the satellite programs in the 1960's. The second is the vast array of authors that have dabbled in the subject. All the big names are there - Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury (of course), Wells (of course again), and even Philip K. Dick. Also listed there with a range from 1912 to 1943 is Burroughs own series in which Mars is referred to as Barsoom by its warlike inhabitants.

Now I don't expect to find much thought provoking science fiction in JCM. Both the film trailers and the nature of the period in which they were written (Buck Rogers, etc.), tells me it is more of an adventure story than anything else, a Tarzan in space, if you will. Add to that the Disney label and you have a nice family adventure film. I'm eager to see if they will try to explain away the imaginative world of E.R. Burroughs on this 100 year anniversary of the first work, or just throw reality unapologetically out the window. The historic nature of the material means I am compelled to go see it even if just to be able to comment on it here.

Well, when JCM finally came out in theaters, it flew by like an owl in the night. I was so busy tending to the birth of my second child that I had to wait for it on pay-per-view. Word was that it didn't do so well and I was eager to see what had happened. I'll begin with the good points. As I had expected, one of the strongest aspects of the film was the overall story. All the elements of great storytelling were there, alongside a very colorful and well developed set of characters which were in fact well cast and rather well portrayed. Another striking aspect of the film was the effectiveness of the CGI motion capture used on all the Thark characters. Although James Cameron pioneered the technique in Avatar, this movie seamlessly maps the actors' performances onto a body type much less similar to the human form. The Tharks display a wide range of emotion on an elongated face with eyes at the top and two large tusks protruding from the cheeks. They use four limbs with ease and can lock tusks in combat and it all looks so natural. And I must say that some of the best performances come from the Thark characters like Tars (Willem Dafoe) and Sola (Samantha Morton). Heck, even the martian dog Woola turns out to be a great character.

It is sad that in spite of all this, the film's fall from grace is mainly due to a barrage of technical problems. The music isn't quite right here, the directing could be better there, the dialogue just a bit too corny in places, and oh the editing! Critics rightly pick at the opening scene for being way to early and involved, many of the battle scenes are chaotic and hard to follow, and there are glaring holes that seem like they were cut out to save running time. Sola's origins, a crucial part of her character arc, are passed over with a line. John Carter's remorse for not being able to save his family, another crucial character element, is flashed back at a turning point in the film without having introduced it in the first place. Perhaps they cut out his telling of the story to Deja Thoris, which would explain how a glance at his wedding ring could remind her of his past love when no one ever explained to her what a wedding ring is. Someone must have thought that all the ubiquitous action scenes were more important to the story than the character arcs. I hope they notice what happened at the box office.

I've heard that Burroughs' original tale is much richer in content and perhaps it needed to be broken into several films to do it justice. To answer my original curiosity about its connection to reality, it takes place in the mid 1800's, and there's an implication that the planet Mars is on its way out. However, there's so much that reaches into the world of fantasy - eternal beings, humanoid martians, voodoo like energy sources, transporters based on incantations - that I suppose it doesn't much matter. What does matter is the contribution that Mr. Burroughs' made the world of science fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I guess its only a question of time before an E.T. signal pops up on earths radio telescopes.