Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

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Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

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Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

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I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

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So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

Burroughs of Barsoom

So I did something which they tell me is rather unique for me. I went to go see a mainstream movie on its opening night. Weird, I know. I saw Disney’s John Carter (2012). I went into the theater expecting to be sadly disappointed as I had been when I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—which I also saw opening day. Douglas Adams and Edgar Rice Burroughs were the science fiction guys in my house growing up. Them and Isaac Asimov. Also H.G. Wells. And a bit of Jules Verne. All this to say I was fully prepared to see a cherished childhood memory tarnished. I must confess I was pleasantly surprised.

John Carter has been receiving mixed reviews at best and I think I can see why, but can I tell you something super dooper secret? I kinda really liked it. It felt like reading the old pulpy Burroughs’ books again. As the images kept coming I was reminded of exciting passages ripped straight out of Princess of Mars (originally written in 1912). A thousand past imagined battles and characters were alive and moving across the vast screen before me. Some images even bore the watermarks of the gnarly Frank Frazetta illustrations. Frazetta is to Burroughs what Sir John Tenniel is to Lewis Carroll. I was surprised by how much of the story remained intact. Amidst the wash of fond memories of the smells of the attic of my boyhood and sitting in the old chair reading these Martian books, I was struck to my core. This may be the closest Burroughs adaptation ever made.

Seriously. Tarzan (also a product of 1912) has been adapted so many times with so many different visions, but all fall short. . . although I’m still rather partial to the hokey Johnny Weissmuller ones from the 1930s. Burroughs would take perfectly masculine heroes to the darkest jungles, to the wild west, to Mars, to Venus, to the center of the earth, to dinosaur times, ad nausea. Tarzan is still his most well-known character. John Carter may not have had the impact of Tarzan, but he’s still a great character. Hey, wait. John Carter totally had an impact on American culture. Maybe even more than Tarzan.

One of the biggest problems with the movie John Carter is that so many of its elements seem derivative of things like Star Wars, Superman, and so much more. But Burroughs predates all of them. In fact, for however pulpy and ludicrous a scribbler Edgar Rice Burroughs was, his work really changed the way America sees its heroes. An average, rugged American bashing around the country and getting zapped into outer space may sound fairly innocuous, but when he lands on another planet and discovers that he has superhuman strength and agility there and he decides to fight for what is good and unite the world’s peoples and ultimately save it you get Superman! But Siegel and Shuster didn’t come up with Superman until 1932. There are several scenes where hideous alien monsters battle the protagonists in sporting arenas. It may sound like Luke fighting the Rancor or the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, but the pages of Princess of Mars were scrawled long before these shadows were dreamed up. Even the language. Compare Burroughs’ “Jeddak” with Lucas’s “Jedi.” My dad always wondered about that. Even consider the fact that Burroughs developed several elaborate fantasy universes and cultures before Tolkien described Middle-Earth in 1937.

The trouble is that the mechanics and ingredients of a once original author’s worlds have become commonplace now. Since he has inspired so much, been copied so many times, and been reinvented over and over again, a faithful screen telling would undoubtedly seem somewhat deflated compared with other space opera blockbusters. The truth is that Burroughs’ Barsoom books could never have been realized on screen before now because of the necessary visual complexity. The movie may not be as fresh as it would have been 100 years ago, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In a time when superhero movies with explosive action and mayhem are becoming tired and boring, it’s no wonder a movie like John Carter can get lost in the shuffle. It looks like more of the same. It looks like a knockoff of Clash of the Titans (2010), Avatar (2009), or Thor (2011) but not nearly as mind-numbing as any of the Transformers movies. Now I thought all of those films were pretty godawful, but something about John Carter was different. Was it mere nostalgia? Was it the classic feel the movie had? Was it the wave of memories that surged through my mind at the theater? I don’t know. I do know this though: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter has a winning personality and energy and perhaps, in keeping so close to its source material, it has bottled some of the original magic. For all its new-fangled frills and costly special effects, it feels authentic and old-timey. I’m glad director Andrew Stanton didn’t feel the need to update or reboot the story.

Deal with it. I hated Avatar.

As for the film itself, it’s not perfect. Burroughs’ books, which originally appeared as cliffhangers in magazines, are pulp adventure and tales of violence and this movie does not veer from that origin and I don’t think it would be appropriate if they did. Consider Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). It took the Tarzan story way too seriously and it didn’t work. It also didn’t help that Christopher Lambert (The Highlander) was cast in the title role. No, Barsoom needed to be treated with affection and levity. I’d say they succeeded. It reminded my roommate of some of the cheesy B-movies made in the science fiction craze of the 70s and 80s, but with a better budget. Perhaps an apt description and that’s exactly what it needed to be. I’d be a sucker anyway. I kinda love those old B-movies.

The movie has action, humor, great special effects, engaging characters, monsters, cool vehicles, and some fun battles. It does have a few dialogue scenes that may go on a smidgen too long, but I can forgive it. I had my doubts about almost every character from the trailers; from John Carter and Dejah Thoris to my favorite character, Tars Tarkas. I must confess that Taylor Kitsch (Carter) was not as wooden as I’d feared and actually elicits some humor and embodies the character well. Lynn Collins (Dejah) is a fiery and sexy Princess of Mars (maybe a bit too sciency, but oh well). She looks great and her character is decidedly more interesting and fun than a lot of female characters in similar veined movies. The great Willem Dafoe does one heck of a Thark as Tars Tarkas too. Even the minor characters like Sola, Kantos Kan, Tal Hajus, and Woola are pretty great. We did need more of Kantos Kan, by the way. A note on the Martian (Barsoomian) dog, Woola: I know you may be thinking a quirky monster pet comic relief character sounds positively nauseating, but believe me when I say he is quite a delight and a pleasure to observe whenever he is onscreen.

The film does lack a concrete villain. We get that Mark Strong is playing another bad guy (he’s gonna get a rep if he’s not careful), but his motives are very unclear for the most part. That’s another thing though; Burroughs always seemed to prefer writing great, impossible heroes over memorable baddies. So be it.

The biggest problem with the movie is the title. I get not naming it Princess of Mars after the book, but John Carter is misleading and ambiguous. In an effort to give the movie broader appeal Disney has given it the kiss of death with one of the worst movie titles. Yes, the main character’s name is John Carter, but John Carter of Mars would have been so much more descriptive and appropriate. It’s all marketing and it seems fairly obvious that the suits in charge had no idea what they were doing.

People have called this film dull and derivative, but I say there is a noble soul deep down in there, despite the occasional convolutions. As cynical as I am about a lot of new Hollywood movies, I can honestly report that I greatly enjoyed John Carter. It stays very true to the original novel that was written 100 years ago. It’s fun, exciting science fiction entertainment (heavy on the fiction side of things, just the way we Star Wars dorks like it) and it should please the whole family. I went in with a jaded heart, but the movie won me over. Don’t let bad reviews scare you away from having a good time with this adventure. Who reads reviews anyway?

A final word. Don’t pick up an Edgar Rice Burroughs book expecting to find great literature. They are merely wonderful entertainment with loads of monsters, heroes, and violence. They’re also a bit racist. Okay, I love you, b-bye.