Review: John Carter

John Carter is a movie that has one of the oddest handicaps to overcome, the legacy of its source material. Edgar Rice Burroughs first Barsoom story was published in February 1912 so we are talking about a story that is literally 100 years old.  And it is more importantly one of the most influential science fiction series ever. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan were all inspired by the novels in their work. You can see the influence in Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Superman, and Star Wars. 

This legacy has led many reviewers to label the story derivative. That’s sort of like someone slamming the Lord of the Rings films as a Dungeons and Dragons rip off. I would prefer they get the order of their chickens and eggs correct.
Ignoring all of that, there is one question that needs to be answered, was it a good movie?
Let’s find out.
The movie uses the same framing device that the first novel used, Edgar Rice Burroughs reading a journal left by his uncle John Carter that details his adventures on Mars.
The movie takes a while to get going setting up the basic Martian conflict, the Burroughs framing device, and where Carter’s life is, before eventually getting him to Mars. It does get points for making the means of transportation make more sense and even a plot point.
Once Carter is on Mars or Barsoom as the inhabitants call it the movie kicks into gear. As is my habit, I will not get into a scene by scene breakdown. But there is a lot to call out.
The script on this movie is pretty strong. There is an actual story happening, not just excuses for action scenes. The characters have motivations that make sense and can but people into conflict without forcing it. It’s not an overly complex story, but it is there.
As John Carter Taylor Kitsch has to basically carry the whole film and overall he does a good job with it. While he is not going to be lauded as the next great action star from his performance he does well and if there is a major flaw it is that there is not a lot of humor in Carter and all his lines are delivered with a great deal of earnestness.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris steals just about every scene she is in. True to the books Dejah is a strong courageous woman who can hold her own. The Damsel in Distress aspect from the books is toned down for the movie, but is still evident. Collins plays her as an intelligent woman who is not content to wait for someone to come rescue her, but is not above relying on Carter do help win the day.
Williem Defoe has a harder performance to put across as Tar Tarkas, Carter’s Thark ally. All the Tharks are CGI so Defoe has to use his voice. Reports are that he and the other Thark principals were on set as is the current practice for CGI characters, so he is credited with the full performance, not just voice.
The movie also is a mini reunion for the HBO series Rome. Ciaran Hinds who played Julius Caesar plays Tardos Mors King of Helium and Dejah’s father (at least I think he is. In the books he was her grandfather) James Purefoy, who was Mark Antony plays Mors’ right hand man Kantos Kan, and Polly Walker who was Atia plays the Thark Sarkoja.
Mark Strong as Matai Shang, the antagonist that is motivating most of the action. I like that he opted to play his character as sincere without cruelty. It works better than being a mustache twirler.
Dominic West as Sab Than probably suffers the worst of the entire main cast. As Matai’s pawn he has the weakest motivation of any characters.  Frankly he is a bit of a mustache twirler.
Overall I feel this was a good movie and worth seeing. The major flaw I see isn’t with the movie itself, but how Disney has marketed it. It was presented as a standard action flick. A better campaign would have celebrated the history of Barsoom and the legacy of the story.  The fact that the title is just John  Carter, not John Carter of Mars, shows that they had no idea what to do with it.
I recommend this movie and hope that we see more of Barsoom in the future.

The Ultimate Crossover: The Wold Newton Family

 MythsAs long as there has been fiction one of the favorite tropes has been the crossover, characters from one set of stories meeting characters from another. Sherlock Holmes matching wits with Count Dracula, Allen Quartermain and Captain Nemo teaming up to repel an invasion from Mars, Rick and A.J. Simon teaming up with Thomas Magnum to take down a con artist. There is a desire to see interaction between these characters. And it is not just the realm of fan fiction that these happen. The examples I used above were from various published or produced works.

But there is one person who took the crossover idea to a new level, Philip Jose Farmer. In 1972 Farmer wrote Tarzan Alive. This novel was a biography written as if Tarzan had been a real person. This alone made it an interesting book as Farmer attempted to reconcile several of the inconsistencies in the Tarzan novels, such as claiming the apes that raised him were not actually apes but something closer to an African species of Sasquatch.  Towards the end of the book and in his follow up the next year Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life Farmer formed the basis of what would come to be known as the Wold Newton Family. This concept would be an attempt to tie Victorian and Pulp era heroes together in one great shared universe.

The concept takes its name from a real world event. On December 13th 1795 a meteorite fall just a few miles away from the small Hamlet of Wold Newton in Yorkshire, England. It was the first intact meteorite to be found in England and of great scientific interest.

What Farmer did was to take this event and use it as a jumping off point. According to Farmer when the meteorite struck two coaches were nearby carrying a group going on holiday at a county estate.  Due to some unknown effect of the meteorite’s landing the people in the coaches had their DNA altered leading to their descendants being extraordinary individuals.

Amongst the passengers were the following:

John Clayton, the third Duke of Greystoke, and his wife, Alicia
Sir Percy Blakeney, (the Scarlet Pimpernel), and his second wife, Alice Clarke Raffles
Dr. Siger Holmes and his wife, Violet Clarke Raffles
Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife, Elizabeth Bennett
Sir Hugh Drummond, and his wife, Georgia Dewhurst
George Edward Rutherford, and his wife, Elizabeth Cavendish
Honore Delagardie and his wife, Philippa
Sebastion Noel, a medical student of Dr. Holmes
The coachmen were Louis Lupin, Albert Lecoq, Arthur Blake and Simon MacNichols

You may have notice some familiar sounding names in there.  The idea from here is that the descendants of these individuals would be great heroes and villains.

An example is the family of John Clayton. Clearly he is the grandfather of Tarzan, but as it turns out Doc Savage, James Bond and even Fu Manchu can claim him as an ancestor.

Sebastion Noel’s family line includes Professor James Moriarty (who for a time went by the alias Captain Nemo), Dr. No, and Lex Luthor.

Sir Percy’s family includes the Shadow. Sir Hugh’s family has Bulldog Drummond, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Captain America.

I could go on but why don’t you go here and here to look at the vast family trees involved.

Here is a good time to point out that Farmer may have started this, but others have picked it up. It has become a literary game. People will go in and try to find connections to bring new characters into the Wold Newton family. Originally it was just Victorian and Pulp era characters but it has expanded to include modern characters from novels, TV, movies, video games and comics.

Example:  Indiana Jones is a Holmes as is his nephew, Daniel Jackson of Stargate SG-1. In what should surprise no one Lara Croft was one of his students.

Additions have been made that incorporate Star Trek, Lovecraft’s Mythos and Doctor Who.

And the monsters, oh the monsters.

The amount of detail some people have gone to in order to include the Universal Monsters is truly amazing.

There are chronicles for the families of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll.

Conceits are created to explain different versions of the characters. For Dracula the idea is introduced that he could turn a person and then imprint his mind on theirs (a process he called soul cloning). Since the process was not exact it could explain differences in how the character acts in different stories.

For Frankenstein you have the idea of the family having an obsession that carries from generation to generation.

And then there are the attempts to tie things together. Let’s look at the story of the creature created by Frankenstein’s Great-Grandson Frederick Frankenstein, which you will all know from the movie Young Frankenstein. According to Wold Newton Elizabeth, the fiancé of Fredrick who fell in love with creature was in reality named Lilith and was the daughter of one of Dracula’s soul clones. When Van Helsing’s organization the League of Anti-Diabolists learned of their attempt to lead a peaceful life they stepped in to help, hoping to see if monsters could be rehabilitated. They were moved to America along with Lilith’s father and given guardian ship of a young orphan named Edmond who was infected with lycanthropy.  A league member Marilyn Krough was placed with them to observe their attempts at domestication. The creature adopted the name Herman. Thus they became the Munsters.

Try to tell me that is not a cool concept.

One more I really like.

Henry Jekyll’s formula did not work with way he thought it did. All it did was trigger his latent Therianthropy. This is a trait he would pass down to his offspring, many fathered as Mr Hyde. His decedents would include Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm.

I’m sure many of you have noticed similarities to both Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series. Both authors have stated that the Wold Newton Family was an influence.

And all this just scratches the surface. You can spend hours going over all the details people have added to this particular academic exercise. Go here for the best web site resource I know of. Also check out the book Myths of the Modern Age which is a collection of articles edited by Win Scott Eckert.

Now all we need to do is figure out which family tree Gibbs from NCIS belongs in.