The Middlebrow


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.

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 …

Spoken like a true imperialist! Through pure desire—the Manifest Destiny oozing from his pores—Carter beams up.

He finds Mars in the kind of decay Lowell described. But Mars, which the locals call Barsoom, also has great airborne navies and rifles that can fire accurately at a range of 200 miles. Carter sets out to become the planet’s earthling master. He learns to pilot a ship. He teaches the savage Martians empathy—while mastering their art of telepathy. (He can read their minds, but through a trick that’s never quite explained, they can’t read his.) Carter deflowers the beautiful Martian princess Dejah Thoris, who exclaims, “Can it be that all Earth men are as you?”

If Wells gave us Conquering Mars, Burroughs was offering Conquerable Mars. But nearly a century after its publication, what’s amazing about A Princess of Mars is the detail. From Mars’ Jeddak leaders (a word surely borrowed by Burroughs fan George Lucas) to the mod hairstyle of red Martians (square in back, banged in front), Mars is a fully-formed world. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, a group that promotes Martian exploration, calls Burroughs’ vision “sensuous”—the perfect word.* Sensuous Mars is a place of living color.

“On one level—the obvious level—Burroughs’ novels are fantasy,” says Zubrin. “But on another level, they carry an inner truth which is profound, which is the basic idea that there are other worlds.” After reading the Burroughs books as a kid, the astronomer Carl Sagan found himself gazing at Mars in the night sky, arms outstretched, hoping he would be beamed up, too.  

Ray Bradbury was a sensuous writer, but his primary interest in Mars was in painting a cautionary tale for the folks back home. Call Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) Earth Mars. In an opening chapter, a Martian husband and wife are having a spat: They’re Archie and Edith, as aliens. The wife telepathically senses that earthlings are headed their way on a rocket. The husband, patting her head, gets a gun and kills them.

Scores of human astronauts are killed off in similar fashion. Then the Martians themselves are done in by chicken pox. The Martian Chronicles is the best-written book about Mars, full of water-filled canals and Bradbury’s Midwestern warmth. But an elegiac spirit settles over the whole thing. Humans eventually leave Mars to fight a great war back home. The final chapter features a human family that has come to Mars just before Earth was destroyed. The Earth “strangled itself with its own hands,” a character says. Bradbury is positing not just the destruction of one civilization but two.

The sensuous period ended right about there. Science spoiled the fun. In 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft passed by the planet. “We see many impact craters,” Carl Sagan sighed, “but we find no canals. None at all.” (His TV special was called “Blues for a Red Planet.”) Suddenly, the outsized literary dreams of Burroughs and Wells and Bradbury gave way to a less romantic search for microbial life. What came next was Downsized Mars.

The human colonists in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) aren’t struck by Martian wonders. They’re bored out of their gourds. They pop CAN-D, a hallucinogen that allows them to transport themselves into Barbie-like dream houses. That allows them to act out their idealized life on Earth, a life rapidly receding as—Dick informs us—global warming plays havoc with the planet. Dick’s idea was anti-romantic: That living on Mars, should you be unlucky enough to be sent there, would be grindingly dull. The solution was to drop out. Welcome, dude, to High Mars.

A lot of the later Mars books are like this. We were escaping the destruction of our planet—from rising oceans, nuclear war, you name it—for a new home. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, published between 1992 and 1996, took the idea of a new Earth and hammered out the specifics of governance and environmental upkeep. It’s Model U.N. Mars—devoted, in the same spirit of the Star Trek movies, to ways we might save ourselves.

Besides a stray movie like Total Recall (also based on Dick), most Mars entertainments around the turn of the century stunk. See Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (which at least had a great death scene), and The Red Planet. In the run-up to his 2004 campaign, George W. Bush announced a manned mission to Mars. Like Newt Gingrich’s moon base, the trip was seen as a boondoggle, a shuttle to nowhere, and the idea was dropped. Steven Spielberg made his War of the Worlds in 2005 … and scrubbed the word “Mars” from the script entirely. As Spielberg explained, he saw the metallic monsters coming from a more distant—which is to say, more romantic—world.

What imagination writers once poured into Mars has been redirected to the other places in the solar system that might support life—like Jupiter’s moon Europa, the setting of an upcoming movie. Or else the writers have taken Burroughs’ mandate for sensuous worlds, full of aliens and strange customs, and created Vulcan, Pandora, Tatooine.

These days, if you want a really romantic vision of Mars, don’t ask a writer. Ask a scientist. “The interest of most science fiction is human or intelligent life, where as we’re talking about microbes,” says Bruce Jakosky, a scientist who’s working on NASA’s next Mars orbiter. “To me, they’re the same thing.” When he was an engineer at Martin Marietta, Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society designed a balloon that was to sail over the Martian surface. “The reason I was excited about that mission was its social-intellectual effect,” he says. “Balloons get a bird’s-eye view. You can see mountains from the side. You can see canyons.”

View of Mars from the Mars Lander

“It really conveys that this is another world,” Zubrin continues. “It’s not a point of light in the sky … It’s an exciting world worthy of exploration, and perhaps where human beings can someday make a home.”

Let’s call that the final vision: Real Mars. It’s no wonder that a 95-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel feels anachronistic when plopped onto the big screen. For a single image from the Mars Lander is more spectacular than any sentence ever written by Burroughs, and it pulls at us with the same force Mars once pulled at John Carter. “I believe there is going to be human civilization on Mars,” Zubrin says. “Burroughs was right. He just had the dates wrong.”

Correction, March 8, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of Robert Zubrin. (Return to the corrected sentence)