Can John Carter Make Mars Cool Again?

Dissecting the mainstream.
March 8 2012 11:50 AM

Mars

Can John Carter make the red planet cool again?

John Carter
A scene from John Carter

Photograph courtesy ©2011 Disney.

Also in Slate, read Dana Stevens' review of John Carter.

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This Friday, John Carter has two missions. First, he must save the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris from the ravagings of Sab Than, win the friendship of Tars Tarkas, and hammer out a peace agreement between the kingdoms of Thark and Helium—the Israel and Iran of Barsoom.

Then comes the hard part. The hero of the new movie John Carter has to make Mars cool again. For a century, Mars was the place where a fictional astronaut made his bones. Where, under the light of twin moons, he could explore great, ruined cities, slay 15-foot-tall aliens, and marry a princess. Now, director Andrew Stanton has gone so far as to remove the word “Mars” from the title of the movie. His official explanation is that it made the movie sound too dorky for women. But I think the real problem is that Mars feels too retro—too George Pal Atomic Age—for the 13-year-old blockbuster audience. What happened?

A century ago, Mars was alluring because of its proximity to Earth and … certain signs of life. In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed canali—channels—upon the Martian surface. Percival Lowell, an astronomer from Boston, was one of many to conclude these canali were bona fide canals—that is, the work of intelligent life forms. Writing with the imagination of a novelist, Lowell speculated that Mars was a dusty, dying planet, and the Martians had built canals as part of a Hail Mary plan to bring in water from the polar ice caps. Doomed Mars was the first great fictional rendering of the Red Planet. It’s a vision that made Lowell the planet’s literary godfather.

H.G. Wells read such findings in his English country house and asked: If Mars is toast, where will the Martians go? In The War of the Worlds (1898), he imagined they’d come here. Wells’ Mars—Conquering Mars—is laid out on the first page. “[A]cross the gulf of space,” he wrote, “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” The death of their planet had “hardened [Martian] hearts”—as Wells writes, they might as well be studying an amoeba under a microscope.

Their first spacecraft lands one night in Horsell Common, outside London. The Martians aren’t much to look at: sexless, tentacled blobs evolved to the point where they’re “mere brains.” As earthlings watch, they build towering metal tripods, equipped with heat rays and poisonous black smoke. Then these “striding metallic monsters” obliterate the British countryside.

The War of the Worlds can be darkly funny. A nationalistic Brit, offered an escape to France, wonders if she shouldn’t take her chances with the Martians. But the book is also terrifying. Wells’ masterstroke was using the limited vantage point of his narrator—who knows little but what he sees and hears from frightened pedestrians—to conjure the fear of the unknown.

Wells was taking the terror inspired by the British Empire—by its metallic monsters that were striding across the globe—and turning it against the Brits. He was putting his neighbors in the shoes of Indians, Egyptians—of the colonized. The War of the Worlds, indeed—it’s the first versus the third. It’s ironic that when Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre rendition scared the crap out of America, four decades later, the imperial shoe was on the other foot.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917), which Disney’s John Carter takes as source material, has a pre-Wells sensibility. Carter is a Virginian, an ex-Confederate (we’re told his slaves loved him), on the run from Apaches in Arizona. He seems to die in a cave. But moments later Carter has left his mortal body and is staring at Mars in the night sky:

As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron. My longing was beyond the power of opposition …

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