On the evening of Thursday March 1, 2012, I went with perhaps a couple hundred other lucky Phoenix fen to see a sneak preview of John Carter of Mars. JCM is a film that I and a lot of other science fiction fans have been excited and hopeful about for years. I practically had to go to Mars to see the movie, as the sneak was at Harkins Arrowhead theaters, hidden in a jungle of giant shopping mall stores out at 83rd Avenue and Bell in Peoria. It took me well over an hour to find the place since I started with a wrong impression of where I was going, and then zigged when I should have zagged, but I didn’t give up, and I’m glad I didn’t. The movie turned out to be not only spectacular in terms of special effects, but much better than I thought it would be in terms of story. If you were hesitating, don’t. You must see this film.
(You don’t have to see it in 3D, however. The 3D effects were nowhere near as awesome as they were in Avatar.)
I scored a copy of this poster at VulCon 1, and it now dominates my living room.
I’m not going to issue any spoilers, or tell you anything you haven’t seen in the movie trailers, but I do want to make some comments about the film in general. By now anyone who cares knows that John Carter is the story of an earthman magically transported to Mars (Barsoom) where he meets strange creatures and wins the love of a Martian princess. People get sidetracked by the scenery. Way back in 1912 when Edgar Rice Burroughs first wrote “Under the Moons of Mars” for All Story Magazine, he was writing a romance. Yes, the setting was the exotic world of Mars, but the heart of the tale is the love story of John Carter and Dejah Thoris. This is what Disney and Pixar should have focussed their marketing on–not special effects with armies and giant white apes. A woman I talked to said there was “too much fighting”. She liked the humor, and the love story, and Woola made her laugh, but the movie had “too much fighting.”
One of the humorous bits in the movie comes near the beginning. During the first meeting of Tars Tarkas, jeddak of the Tharks, and John Carter, lost newbie on an alien planet, the green man thumps his chest and says “Tars Tarkas”. Carter correctly deduces that Tars Tarkas is his name. The earthman indicates himself, not nearly as strongly as he could have, and says “John Carter of Virginia.” From this, Tars Tarkas deduces that his name is Virginia, and he calls him Virginia for the rest of the movie. Even Dejah Thoris thinks his name is Virginia at the beginning of the film. The theater roared with laughter. It is a good joke on John. Hence our blog title, Virginia of Mars.
John Carter is a long film–over two hours. I loved it all, but it may be too much for some people. The special effects were out-fucking-standing. I especially liked the Barsoomian flyers, but I had a hard time finding a good picture of one on the web that I could use. This will have to do.
John Carter sees Martian flyers for the first time.
It’s a fantasy. We all have to suspend our disbelief, but Hollywood movie producers continually go too far. John Carter’s earthly muscles give him tremendous jumping powers on Mars. it is believable that he could jump perhaps 20 or 30 feet–which is about what Burroughs had him do in the books. The gravity of Mars is about 1/4 the gravity of Earth. The movie shows him jumping hundreds of feet at a time, practically flying. The plot depends upon it. Okay, he’s Superman on Mars. It makes for great action, but it’s going to hurt the crediblity of the movie with critics and anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Mars and astronomy. Hollywood should not bank on the stupidity of the audience. We’re not that dumb.
Look! Up in the sky! It's a . . .
John Carter gains a pet and a protector on Mars, a calot named Woola. He’s the Martian equivalent of a dog–a big powerful friendly dog. I think the film makers did the right thing by having Woola bark like a dog–just to help with the identification in the minds of the audience. However, Burroughs never said that calots had super speed. It’s funny when Carter tries to escape his guardian by leaping only to find the THING waiting for him whenever he landed. However, to show this critter moving at eye-blurring speeds during the rest of the movie, strains our sense of reality even further. Just another example of Hollywood going too far.
"Stay, Woola, stay!" Dog training on Mars.
There is a lot in this movie. Maybe I’ll do a second blog about it in a week or two just about the characters. The acting was very fine, I thought, and the characters all deserve description and analysis. But I don’t have time. I want to come back to my point that Pixar/Disney is blowing the marketing by focussing on monsters and battles. To be successful a movie has to appeal to American women, and for the most part, they like romance. They don’t like monsters and battles. Star Wars uses the romantic triangle of Luke, Han, and Leia to bring the audience into the film. The great Star Wars movie posters always show Leia. Dejah Thoris is incredible–as beautiful women go she’s a 20 on a scale of 10. She fights like an Amazon. She’s a briliant scientist, a patriot, and a princess. She’s perfection. They should be emphasizing her role in the movie. They aren’t. In my opinion, this is the trailer they should be showing the most, and the emphasis should be on interplanetary romance in times of peril.
Don’t let anyone tell you this film is bad! It’s amazingly great–with a few minor quibbles because Hollywood always goes overboard on things. I will be going to see it again, maybe more than once.
If you like John Carter, sword and planet stories, or just alien monsters, please leave a comment.
The key to the whole movie is the suspension of disbelief. Let’s not let mere facts get in the way of a good story. Leonardo Da Vinci lived from 1452 to 1519. We know he was trying to design flying machines in 1485 at the age of 33. His designs were actually more like helicopters or ornithopters than giant blimps carrying the body of a galleon that could be used as an aerial warcraft. Leonardo’s design looked something like this:
It doesn't look much like anything that could actually fly.
By the time our highly imaginative movie writers got done with the idea, Da Vinci’s flyer looked more like this:
The 3 Musketeeers was a romantic novel written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844. He set his tale of derring-do during the reign of Louis XIII when Cardinal Armand de Richelieu was his chief minister. Internal evidence would have D’Artagnan joining the Musketeers in about 1636 or 1637–the heyday of Richelieu’s power. By 1642 Richelieu was dead–probably from complications caused by gonorrhea which he contracted when he was a teenager. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are portrayed in the movie as the King’s primary secret agents, sent off to do Mission Impossible things in places like Venice where Da Vinci had enjoyed prestige and power unlike anything he really had a century and a half earlier. There is no mention in the movie that the King’s Musketeers was a large military force maintained as a unit by the King himself, although the Cardinal’s Guard was certainly extensive. There were just the three of them. Let’s also ignore the fact that the first hot air balloon took a man into the sky on November 21, 1783, about 150 years after the actual Musketeers lived and fought, and it was only a small thing scarcely able to lift a single man a couple hundred feet into the air–hardly a Barsoomian flyer, or a flying war galleon.
Our first glimpse of Athos shows him emerging from the canals of Venice like a modern day scuba diver–his outfit being half a cross between a suited diver with air pumped into hs armored form, and a scuba-diver who carries his own supply of air. Pretty cool technology for 1635 when Cousteau wouldn’t get around to inventing real scuba gear until 1942. Clearly, this movie is set in an alternate time-line where technology has run wild. I don’t have any trouble with that. Do you?
But what really counts is STORY. And the story is still basically Dumas’ tale of a young man, D’Artagnan, who becomes the protege of three middle-aged but still extremely competent soldiers named Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. (Those are the short forms of their names–the French of the time period had extremely long and complicated names. For example, Richelieu, his Scarlet Eminence, was really named Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duc de Richelieu. D’Artagnan was really Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d’Artagnan. By all means, let us stick to the short forms of their names.) Young Charles and his friends become involved in a plot to go to England and return with some of Queen Anne’s jewels. This they accomplish against great odds, thus foiling the Cardinal’s plot to expose Anne as an adultress and get her executed. The details may have changed a bit from Dumas’ novel in 1844 to Anderson’s movie in 2011, but the essentials are the same. Richelieu, Rochefort, and Milady de Winter are still the villains. Aramis, Athos, Porthos, D’Artagnan, Planchet and Constance are still the heroes. What could be more edifying than a story about friends–all for one and one for all–triumphing over great odds and saving the life and honor of a beautiful woman?
While Richelieu is the mastermind behind the plots, the one person who makes the movie work, is superspy Countess de Winter. She is by far the best looking, most athletic, and all around smartest person in the film. An adventuress, you get the feeling that she does the (evil) things she does simply for the thrill and challenge of doing them. She is magnificent, and not the heartless witch you would expect. She saves D’Artagnan from death at Rochefort’s hands early in the film. She gives them the safe passage note that she got from the Cardinal knowing full well that they would need it in order to survive. She is really everyone’s agent, and thoroughly unbelievable–a super heroine, or perhaps a super villainess in a class with Wonder Woman.
But what brings the movie-goers in are the flying ships. There have been at least 30 different versions of the Three Musketeers made as films since 1905. And the charm of them all has been headlong action and the tale of friendship triumphant. These two aspects of the story came through in this modern special-effects extravaganza. I hear it was even better in 3D. I saw the 2D version–really can’t afford 3D. Sure wish I was rich enough to see all these movies in all their modern technological glory. oh well . . .
The battle of the two airships is almost the climax of the film. It is certainly the piece-de-resistance of the epic. The movie is worth its admission price for that magnificently plotted sky duel alone.
However, I went to the movie because I wanted to see the sword fighting. I have always loved sword fighting, and I did some fencing when I was young. I was never any good, but I do know what it feels like to thrust with epee or saber, to swing a claymore, to guard oneself with a broadsword. If a movie features swordplay, I will happily go see it. I don’t care if the plot is ridiculous, or the acting corny. Give me two or more people hacking and slashing at each other with bladed weapons and I’m happy. D’Artagnan’s final duel on the rooftops of Paris with Rochefort was magnificent–perhaps the best piece of sword choreography I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen all the best of them, from Robin Hood vs. the Sherrif of Nottingham to Wesley fighting Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride to the light-saber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. (The fight with the Cardinal’s Guards when D met A, A, and P wasn’t too shoddy either.) I’d happily pay $7 just for the sword fights.
In my humble opinion, this was the best sword fight ever. I'd like to see it again, perhaps in slow motion.
I have read that general audiences rated the Three Musketeers a B. They weren’t bothered by the steampunk aspects–those of us who recognized what was going on, and watched it as a retro-alternate history sci-fi romance loved that part–and they totally grooved on the action sequences. The costumes were great. The special effects were spectacular. The sword fights were amazing. Planchet was funny. The actors were beautiful–all in that glittery clean-cut way that actors are beautiful these days. Movie critics on the whole were not very kind to the Three Musketeers. Maybe they weren’t paid off, or told to write good reviews of it. Maybe they have too much trouble suspending their disbelief. In my book the Three Musketeers was one of the two best action sci-fi-fantasy movies of the summer–the other was Conan the Barbarian.
Fooey on you snooty critics! How can you not appreciate beautiful women, undying friendship, clever plotting, fantastic special effects, derring-do, and incredible swordplay? It’s not realism. It’s not history! It’s the 3 Musketeers done as a science-fiction steampunk romance, and as such, it was a blast. Like riding a roller coaster, you check your brain at the door and just enjoy the ride. I’m giving the Three Musketeers 4 stars and telling the movie critics that they missed the point.
What was your reaction to the Three Musketeers? Go ahead, leave a comment. My second will get to you in due time.