Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away versus...Mars Around 1865 --or-- 'John Carter of Pandora'

The other day I was reading Brooks Barnes' piece at NYT about how/why 'John Carter' bombed and, even though I've scanned a bunch of these lately (as we all have) it occurred to me, out of nowhere, that there is a simple reason this movie did not find an audience. No, I'm not talking about the stuff that's been discussed: the series of bad marketing decisions, Andrew Stanton's style of direction, truncating the title, choppy editing, bad trailers -- that's not what I mean, though they certainly didn't help. What I'm talking about is far more fundamental. It's the reason 'John Carter' flopped.

Mighty big talk, I know. Let me set this up...

Above is a still from one of the 'Star Wars' movies. Apparently, there was a repressive regime, a rebellion, secret plans, daring plots, crushing losses and tremendous victories -- a great adventure. 

It all happened "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." 

Okay. Fine. Sure. I got no problem with any of that. Why should I? We see that stuff all the time here on Earth. We've been waging war since the beginning. Why wouldn't people do the same in a galaxy far far away? So, yeah, I got no issues with this story. 

What's that you say? You don't think so? It's too fanciful, can't be real! Why not? People fight, and there have to be other people out there someplace. It's a giant universe. Who would suggest we're the only intelligent beings (capable of waging war)? That we're the only 'people' who have flying machines and shoot at each other? Really, what are the chances, that in all this space, we're the only intelligent beings? Wouldn't that be 'an awful waste of space'? All things considered, it's harder to argue against the possibility than it is to argue for it.

But, what about those ships and light sabers and stuff? Come on. All based on what we already have. We've been using lasers and fighter planes for a while, now. Why couldn't there be people someplace with blasters and X-wings? Certainly, the opposite exists. Certainly, there are crude people on some planet somewhere living in caves who just invented fire, like, last week who would never believe an electric typewriter could be invented. (Not that you could express the idea to them as they have yet to develop spoken language. You could draw a picture on the wall but that's about it).

It goes both ways. There must be lots of other people out there and they must be in every stage of development. Some are really advanced while others have to be just starting out. I don't have a problem with that idea.

So, if you want to tell me the 'Star Wars' saga happened somewhere in the universe, with people flying around in fancy ships at the speed of light, I'll buy it. Tell me any story and I'll buy it as long as the script/story values are there and you meet certain other requirements. I'll pay full price at the theater, get the Blu-ray, watch it over and over. 

It's all about the pitch. Can I buy what you're selling? Can I accept what you're telling me on some level? Can I suspend disbelief long enough to get to know your characters and care about their plight? For 'Star Wars', within about 30 seconds after that highly committal crawl, the answer was yes. Remember? We sat in the theater, eyes locked on the screen, jaws slack, waiting to find out what happens next. We were hooked. We bought it. The story seemed real.

Even though it happened "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." 

On the other hand, for 'John Carter (of Mars)', that simply wasn't the case. We couldn't accept the premise, not even at face value. And, that was based solely on trailers.


The movie is about a man who, shortly after the American Civil War, is transported to Mars where he encounters people involved in a war of their own. People with flying ships and giant floating cities. Millions of them.

That's not acceptable. The Millennium Falcon and Jedi Knights are okay but a story about people waging wars that takes place on Mars isn't. Not today. And the reason is simple: We know there is no life on Mars and have for a long time.

We've all seen the pictures. Mars is covered with red dirt and rocks. That's it. No Martians navigating canals, no giant white furry apes, no floating cities or dragonfly fighter planes. The only thing on Mars is an old lander, a remote-controlled toy jeep, and that can laying on its side.

'Star Wars' is acceptable because it takes place "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" while the story of 'John Carter', fair or not, is unacceptable primarily because it is set on Mars in the 1800s. That is why the movie flopped.

'John Carter' is based on fiction that was written well before astronomers determined Mars is not only uninhabited but fairly hostile to higher forms of life. While Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories were popular in his day, if they were written today they would never find a publisher. (Of course, if Burroughs was writing today, I'm sure he'd update his fiction and would be just fine). 

Today, the notion of a vast civilization of four-limbed people living on Mars can't be the foundation of a movie. 

It might be worth looking at how Mars was thought of in Edgar Rice Burroughs' time. Burroughs was influenced astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916). Lowell strongly believed there were canals on Mars which carried water and were an indication of an ancient civilization.

Maps of the canals of Mars by Percival Lowell

Lowell published, among other books about Mars, 'Mars as the Abode of Life' in 1908 which fueled the notion the planet was home to intelligent life. Clearly, the guy was passionate about it.

Lowell, in turn, was inspired by the work of Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), a French astronomer whose book La planète Mars et ses conditions d'habitabilité (Mars and its Habitability Conditions) compelled Lowell to become an astronomer.

A depiction of Martian canals from Camille Flammarion's Les Terres du Ciel (1884).

So, Burroughs wrote his John Carter stories at a time when the average person would have at least heard talk of intelligent life on Mars. People were ready for the Barsoom books. They expanded on what the public had been told by leading astronomers. So, the stories sold and you can't blame Burroughs for cashing in on the zeitgeist. 

Today, however, we see Mars differently to say the least. No one has romantic notions of 'life on Mars'. You might be able sell the idea of microbes deep in the soil there but that's about it. It's not hard to understand how, on some level, people would have to reject the premise of 'John Carter'. It's just not an idea that you can float today.

Okay. Fine. 'John Carter' didn't work because the conceit involves thousands of people living on a dead planet with no food or water. However, H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' has been very successful and it depicts, or at least intimates, an advanced civilization of Martians. 

How could that be? Why are movie adaptations of 'War of the Worlds' such a success while 'John Carter' isn't? 

Let's take a look at the best known contemporary movie adaptation of H.G. Wells' story, Steven Spielberg's 2005 film 'War of the Worlds'. 

Let's start at the beginning. Here is Morgan Freeman's narration from the title sequence:

"No one would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us." 

This is paraphrased into a more contemporary style from the opening of H.G. Wells' novel, and essentially has the same content. However, one important element is missing. Freeman's narration makes no mention of Mars or men from Mars. 

The line Wells used: "At most, terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars" was not included. This bit could have been modernized into something like, "We thought there might be intelligent creatures living on Mars" easily enough, but can you imagine what an audience would think after hearing that? The same thing people thought watching trailers for 'John Carter' -- that is, "Are you kidding?"

The word 'Martian' is never used in Spielberg's movie, and for good reason. People would have rolled their eyes. They would have told their friends the movie is ridiculous and 'War of the Worlds' would have crash landed at the box office. Spielberg knew this and that's why he avoided any reference to Mars. 

The thing that makes 'War of the Worlds' believable is that the invaders come from far far away, not Mars. That the ships had been buried long before our cities had even been built means the aliens were planning the invasion for a long long time. The plot has the elements needed to allow suspension of disbelief. It's a story we can lose ourselves in. 

Spielberg adhered to rules of thumb and his movie succeeded. 'John Carter' does not and it flopped. 

There have been other recent movies dealing with Mars. 'Red Planet' and 'Mission to Mars' come to mind, but neither of these suggests there is an advanced civilization on the planet or that Mars could sustain advanced life. There is life in one movie, but it's simple: algae and insects. The other movie has an elegant conceit: there once was intelligent life on Mars, but a long long time ago. So, these movies follow the rules.

Science fiction movies tend to stick close the 'Star Wars' model. The worlds the characters inhabit are well removed from our reality and our time. They have conceits that are fanciful but based on technological concepts which are viable given the setting. They avoid being scientifically unacceptable or logically unsound.

The premise of 'The Matrix' is easy to accept. It stems from an increasing dependence on technological means in order to interact with the world -- the Internet, and the myriad devices which allow us to surf a virtual reality and are becoming more integral to daily life -- and the accompanying and contradictory feeling of alienation as we spend more time connected to other people yet completely anonymous, sometimes even adopting aliases and utilizing codes and passwords to prove who we are. How often do you see someone texting or hitting a website on their phone while walking down the street? How different is that, in essence, to the fate of the characters of 'The Matrix' who live in a completely virtual world? That virtual world, although not physically distant, is once removed from us -- The Matrix can't be found on a street map -- so as such, the setting qualifies as being far away. The story is set in the distant future, further removing it from our reality, making the plot acceptable.

'Alien' takes place far away both in space and time. Its setting is a space ship -- exotic, yet something we are familiar with. There's nothing about this movie that strikes the viewer as impossible except perhaps the suspended animation necessary to travel great distances in space, however there is a precedent for this -- we've seen it in dozens of sci-fi movies -- and it's become a common device. Besides, doctors can induce comas when necessary. Isn't this a form of, or precursor to, controlled suspended animation?

'The Thing' takes place now but the monster comes from far away and crashed on Earth a long time ago. The arctic setting qualifies as once removed from common experience. It works. Same goes for 'Predator'.

'John Carter' doesn't follow this model. It's set kind of far away, but considering its conceit, not far enough. There isn't another planet in our solar system that can support advanced life. So Mars won't do. You have to keep going, farther and farther, in order to find a (fictional) planet where you can walk around without a suit and breathe the air.

JC takes place a while back but not long long ago. The idea there was a great civilization on Mars in the 1800s that is gone now, leaving no trace for the Viking missions to find, is basically a slap in the face. The movie should have been set thousands of years ago or in the future. 

John Carter should have traveled someplace more plausible than our lifeless planetary next door neighbor at a time more distant than right after the Civil War if the action depicted is to be believable.

If filmmakers had stuck to the rules most science fiction movies follow they might have ended up with something like 'John Carter of Pandora', which would have stood a much better chance of box office success.


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