March 11, 2012

Conflicting reviews of John Carter

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:14

First up, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Books), who wasn’t impressed with the new movie:

Well, I was disappointed. Here are a few reasons:

1. The character of John Carter was all wrong — brutish and stupid, far from the chivalrous Virginia gentleman of the books. They abandoned the unabashed romanticism of Burroughs in favor of a modern anti-hero whose tortured path to falling in love with Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Mars, was completely unconvincing.

I wonder at this failure to grasp the simplicity of emotion that suffused the golden age of science-fiction. George Lucas nailed it perfectly in the first Star Wars trilogy. Nobility of purpose, idealism, the pure romance of a boy (or girl) who hasn’t yet experienced the complications of the real thing, adventure and the chance to make a big difference against impossible odds: these are the motivations of the genre.

2. Too much spectacle, not enough attention to character and story. And what spectacle there was was undistinguished. There was a certain steampunk grandiosity to the way they did the flying ships of Barsoom that I liked, and there were some stretches of Lake Powell as the River Iss that I found visually compelling.

On the other hand, ESR went in expecting to be disappointed and instead quite enjoyed the movie:

I’ve read all of the Barsoom novels the movie was based on, but they’re not important in the furniture of my imagination in the way that (say) Robert Heinlein’s books are. They’re very primitive pulp fiction which I sought out mainly because of their historical importance as precursors of later and more interesting work. Still, they are not without a certain rude, innocent charm. The heroes are heroic, the villains villainous, the women are beautiful, dying Mars is a backdrop suffused with barbaric splendor, and the prose is muscular and vigorous.

This translation to movie form retains those virtues quite a bit more faithfully than one might have expected. In doing so it reminded me very much of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior (see my review, A no-shit Sherlock). I didn’t get the powerful sense Sherlock Holmes gave me of the lead actors caring passionately about the source material, but the writers of John Carter certainly cared as much. A surprising amount of Burrough’s Barsoomian mythology and language made it into the movie. The barbarian Green Martians are rendered with gratifying unsentimentality, and the sense of Barsoom as an ancient planet with time-deep history and ancient mysteries is well conveyed.

If you’re me, reading the Barsoom novels is also an entertaining exercise in in origin-spotting tropes that would recur in later planetary romances and space operas clear down to the present day. The designers and writers of John Carter are alive to this; there are a number of points at which the movie visually quotes the Star Wars franchise in a funny, underlined way that reminds us that Barsoom was actually the ur-source for many of the cliches that Star Wars mined so successfully.

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