Culture Shock

Culture.  What does the word mean to you?  Is it the way someone dresses?  The way they speak?  Does the way others behave sometimes offend you?  Are you still shocked after you find out that their actions were representative of a belief system ingrained in them since before birth?  However, what if you're not on the outside looking in; what if you wake up one day and find yourself suddenly submersed in a completely foreign society where not only do you not understand a word of what the people are saying, but the people are fifteen foot tall green aliens with four arms?

My stepping stone for this discussion is the movie John Carter of Mars.  (I refuse to omit the reference to the red planet in the title even though the director and/or studios did, but that's a complete subtopic in itself...)  Suffice it to say, for a movie that has such a lighthearted shell, the filling of the film was thoughtfully epic.  I have to admit I did not see this movie in the theatre.  Even though I didn't know much about it at the time except what I saw on the previews, I was worried Disney was 'dumbing down' what I consider to be a classic series of stories.  So when the film arrived via Netflix the other day, I began the viewing with hopeful skepticism.

For those unfamiliar with the story (or, like me, read the novel(s) when you were growing up but don't remember much about them), the film is largely based on A Princess of Mars (1917), the first in a series of eleven novels to feature the interplanetary hero John Carter. In both print and film John Carter is a former American Civil War Confederate Army officer who is mysteriously teleported through a cave in the desert to Mars, which is known to its inhabitants as Barsoom.

Does the film contain a few cheesy moments?  Yes.  Do you have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy it?  No, because the story, while extremely well-visualized, walks that fine line between science and mythology (the original novels are often classified as science fantasy).  In fact, one of the reasons I was hesitant to see this one in the theatre was because I felt the Tharks (one of the main alien species on Barsoom) looked too much like the Genosians from Star Wars.  However, if you have any interest in culture/world building and are willing to sit down and take this movie for what it is, then I think it may prove to be an entertaining view.

Some reviewers called the film "convoluted."  While John Carter of Mars does have a couple different plot lines running through it, I found it to be refreshing in today's world of cookie cutter blockbusters.  It also makes repeated viewing more enjoyable as you get more out of it after familiarizing yourself with some of the basics.  One important distinguishment to understand at the beginning is the ships from the city Helium fly with a blue flag and the Zodangan ships hoist red flags.  Sounds simple enough, but given that the ships on either side look identical (think Y-Wing type bodies but they fly with the forked section forward) and the ensuing battle is cut together in very quick sequences, it can get confusing who is doing what to whom.

Even though John Carter travels to Mars relatively quickly in the film, it isn't until forty minutes in that he hears the voice of Barsoom and is able to understand what they are saying.  There is so much going on up until that point that the audience is kept in the loop with the use of subtitles, which I thought was a bold move considering this is a special-effects blockbuster.  Speaking of special effects, the Tharks are indeed somewhat similar in appearance to the Genosians, but they don't have wings, nor do they fly (even in ships).  They are also much better animated.  Andrew Stanton, director of the animated Pixar hits WALL-E and Finding Nemo, uses many close-up shots where we get to see, feel, and understand them as living sentient creatures.  Tharks have two sets of arms which aren't there just to make them aesthetically different from humans; in more than one instance we see them displaying functional gestures using the full accompaniment of limbs.

Stanton's eye for detail belays his pedigree with Pixar.  Even at the film's outset, when Edgar visits his deceased uncle's study, the room is filled with enough artifacts and curiosities to make Laura Croft jealous.

The notes, diagrams, and pictures on the wall from Carter's world-wide digs show a much better picture of who he was than the estate attorney ever could.  Embellishments such as these are what made the Martian cultures so fascinating.  The ships of Helium and Zodanga are as detailed as they are massive.  The princess' sprawling throne room is as breath-taking as her body art.  I spotted differences in the way the Thark females dressed from the males, and everything from their tools to their weapons had a production level I haven't seen since the LOTR trilogy.  But all of this just serves to set up the insights we get into their respective civilizations.

The uniqueness of these cultures extends beyond the dress and architecture and into their behavior, a territory not many directors take the time to delve into, especially in genre films.  We get to see the Tharks in their larval stage, watch as they are brought back from the hatchery to the village and released.  The women not only race to scoop one up, but are so desperate for child-rearing that they actually fight over a baby at one point.  Amidst all the chaos we get to know Sola, feel for what happens to her when she commits a 'crime,' and through her we learn about the punishment system employed by her species.

Some of the details I mentioned (and many I didn't) are hidden in the background or shown in glimpses while the focus is on the action to maintain the flow of the movie.  But the important part is that the details are there, which lends the world of Barsoom authenticity and believability.  Often in sci-fi (or any type of culture-building), one has to give at least some thought to what that race or people considers beautiful (see Veronica Sicoe's article: 13 Aspects About Aliens You Shouldn’t Ignore).  This concept was brought to mind not only throughout the film, but punctuated by Tars Tarkas somewhat humorous words when the Jeddak says to John Carter: "You are ugly, but you are beautiful."

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If you are interested in studying various cultures or want to do more research for your WIP, author Juliette Wade has several interesting blogs about culture on her site, TalkToYoUniverse, and one of my favorites can be found here.


  1. Great post, Tim!

    I love a good alien world development -- and good doesn't mean flashy and bearing three cool gadgets (most movies don't have time to show more than 3 capital new pieces of tech), but good as in complex, with internal logic and with a living, breathing internal point of view. And by what you described, the movie John Carter of Mars hits the bullseye.

    I haven't watched the movie, but now I certainly will. Thank you for the wonderful post & your to-the-point description of what needs to be shown when worldbuilding an alien society. :)
    And thanks for the mention too!

  2. Thanks, Vero! I appreciate your comments. I'd love to hear what you think after watching the movie as we all perceive things differently. Especially since this performed 'poorly' (by box office standards), though I think it did somewhat better internationally than here in the States. I just thought it would be a good springboard for a culture-building discussion, including what people thought it did well or did not do well.

    Typically I prefer more 'hard sci-fi,' but this movie made me want to re-familiarize myself with the books, something few films do.


  3. Good thoughts! I loved the movie, and was disappointed to see it panned so quickly, seemingly both because 1) it wasn't cookie cutter and 2) "we've seen this before" with respect to Star Wars. I agree that John Carter did a great job presenting a different culture (or cultures) on many levels, and was an enjoyable adventure. I'd love to see them have another go at it, perhaps leading to more science fantasy works on the big screen.

  4. Timothy, interesting article! I go to the movies seldom, and so was delighted at the opportunity to watch John Carter (of Mars) on the plane on a recent trip. I agree with you that it was well executed, and there was a lot that I enjoyed. Certainly the cultures were much better executed than those of Star Wars (which are far less well-integrated even though they include a lot of detail). I appreciate you mentioning my blog, too! Thanks for sending me over here. :)


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