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March 13, 2012 - Rick Chatenever
Watching John Carter —this week’s 3-D, time-traveling, sci-fi movie action hero played by Taylor Kitsch —trying to decipher mystical stone carvings on ancient temple walls reminded me that I was doing something similar less than a month ago.
John Carter does it on Mars. I was doing it on this planet. I was more of a tourist than an actual Indiana Jones at the majestic, mysterious, thousand-year-old Angkor temples rising from the steamy jungles of Cambodia. Still, there’s nothing like an ancient ruin to bring out your inner Hemingway.
Meanwhile, back at the movies, “John Carter” picks up where “Cowboys and Aliens” left off, transporting a Civil War veteran to Mars.
The disconnect between historic and futuristic may seem jarring at first, but we’re hardly the first generation to ponder what comes next. We may have iPhone 4S, but it doesn’t help with the future.
Wondering about the future is ancient and timeless: The future was probably the very first thing anyone wondered about.
Adapted from a 1912 novel by “Tarzan” creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, this sci-fi romp rewrites a lot of conventional wisdom about the fourth planet from the sun that Burroughs renamed “Barsoom.”
For openers, although it’s often thought of as “the Red Planet” devoid of life, “John Carter’s” Mars is neither red nor dead. In fact, its geography is reminiscent of Arizona, dotted by surreal futuristic architecture, and populated by 12-foot-tall, horned, noseless, four-armed creatures suggesting that this film’s art director may have seen “Avatar.”
Although the writers, including director Andrew Stanton and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, should have stuck with Burroughs’ original title, “A Princess of Mars,” the film has a few points in its favor. Like “Avatar” and the more recent hit “Thor,” it revolves around a intergalactic romance between John Carter and brainy, beautiful Barsoom princess Dejah Thoras (Lynn Collins.)
The reduced gravity of Mars gives superpowers to the cavalryman from Virginia, while simultaneously disproving our planet’s long-held belief that white men can’t jump.
Every frame is full of curious life forms: lovable 12-foot aliens, a goofy big dog by John Carter’s side, nefarious shape-shifting villains, huge armies of barbarians and other beasties.
The plot boasts one surprise ending after another, reminiscent of the pulp fiction that launched Burroughs’ writing career. Indeed, a young version of himself plays a key role in the story.
The author’s initial vision proved picture-perfect for the fledgling movie industry of his day. “John Carter’s” development deals reportedly began in 1931, when a Looney Tunes director tried to turn it into what would have been the movies’ first full-length animated feature.
As eye-popping as it is, “John Carter” reminded me of a classroom discussion last week at UH-Maui College where some students asked why movies are never as good as the books they’re adapted from.
It’s never a good idea to make a generalization using the word “never,” I told them. But their point was well-taken. The reason, I ventured, is that when you read a book, you’re the one making the movie … even if you’re also the only one who gets to see it in the screening room of your mind. You cast the characters, you visualize the sets, you direct the thing. It looks exactly the way you imagine it looks.
Well … and the way Edgar Burroughs imagined it looked when he was dreaming the whole thing up. In his day, the imagination was the real special effects department. Industry special effects were more akin to sleight-of-hand, carny sideshow magic acts.
While “John Carter” serves up some new flavors in eye candy, they come at a price. Computers can generate a colosseum full of bizarro creatures cheering on the gladiatorial combat in the ring, but they also deny today’s film audiences the opportunity to use our imaginations to do it for ourselves.
The imagination is a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing. Go too long without engaging yours, and it might atrophy.
Tromping around Angkor Wat’s stone walls gnarled with ancient tree roots last month, the B-movie screenwriter in my mind kicked into gear. I checked out locations where Angelina Jolie had filmed “Lara Croft Tomb Raider.” “Chariots of the Gods” fantasies flitted through my consciousness of outer-space aliens supervising the construction as a landing site for space ships.
Adventure and the imagination are inexorably linked. They feed each other. Edgar Rice Burroughs has a crater on Mars and the city of Tarzana, Calif., named for things that popped out of his imagination.
And he wasn’t even wearing 3-D glasses.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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At Angkor Wat. Photo by Karen Chatenever