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The Bad (But Fun) Science of John Carter

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Source: Walt Disney Studios

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book A Princess of Mars, and in the film adaptation John Carter, out this week, I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say that the story takes a few liberties with science. Turns out Mars isn’t populated by nomadic tribes of green people and the atmosphere is not safe for shirtless men.

In the story, Carter — already a natural warrior — becomes super-powered on the Martian surface because the lower gravity decreases his mass. That’s the justification for him besting Martians in one-on-one combat, bounding across deserts, and, as seen in the above picture, whipping boulders at giant space hippo-gorillas.

So I guess it’s good that none of the sequels take place on Jupiter, because then Carter would be screwed.

The gravity rationale sums up the book and film’s approach to science very nicely. It feels as if Burroughs (and subsequently director Andrew Stanton) paid just enough attention in physics and astronomy to hear something that sounded cool, but didn’t stick around to hear it get ruined by qualifiers.

(Side note: Siegel and Schuster, the creators of Superman, liked Burroughs’ low-gravity-equals-superpowers idea so much that they used it as the original explanation for where Superman gets his strength. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly, just leapt great distances… just like John Carter.)

But even if it seems like the story is taking a half-ass approach to science, that’s not exactly true. It’s just taking an obsolete approach to science, one that didn’t seem completely unreasonable when Burroughs initially wrote about it. Burroughs was inspired largely by the writings of astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent night after night in his Arizona observatory, making educated guesses about what he could see on Mars. He believed that he could see evidence of canals on Mars, which indicated the presence of a civilized life form.

It’s easy to laugh at him for guessing, but keep in mind, Lowell’s book Mars and Its Canals came out in 1904. He couldn’t exactly send a probe up there at that time to verify his speculations. All he had to work with was a telescope, whatever knowledge of mathematics and physics he had, and imagination.

So even though Lowell was not exactly highly regarded by his contemporaries, since he was guilty of imagining way, way too much, his ideas ultimately found a new life in science fiction, a realm that’s much more rewarding to wild speculation.

If you see John Carter this weekend and have trouble accepting some of the more ludicrous science remind yourself of the hundreds of incidences of bad science you see in just about every movie and TV show. Cars that fall off cliffs don’t explode. Silencers on guns don’t reduce a gunshot to a whisper. Lasers don’t fire little bolts that go “PEW! PEW! PEW!” You can accept a handful of ridiculous science as just part of the fun but reserve scorn for the special few that seem to be playing in a universe with completely different rules. (See Armageddon. No I’m sorry… please do NOT see Armageddon.)

So which is more important in your view of science fiction — the science or the fiction?

(If you want to read a few John Carter novels before seeing the film, check out e-book version, which collects the first five books in the series, along with artwork and a glossary, available for $1.99.)

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