Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John Carter and . . . the Anti-Christ?

If you have seen John Carter, and read my initial post John Carter & the Political Language Of Barsoom, you probably noticed the glaring omission  I made of the Therns, the so-called messengers of the goddess Issus, and they are the reason I needed a bit more time to turn the film over. Several aspects of their role appears contradictory, however, if we patiently examine what the film makers have given us, I think we can understand who they are and why they have been heavily encoded, like so much of the rest of the film.
Mark Strong as the Thern Matai Shang who approaches Dominic West's character Sab Than about becoming the absolute ruler of Barsoom (Mars) with the help of a weapon of great destructive power (the Ninth Ray). Let's examine what his costume says about him. His head is bald, which means an emphasis on knowledge and wisdom and that certainly proves true. The dominant color of his outfit is gray. Gray can be the color of a pilgrim, a novice, or the color of penance because of the role of ashes (which are gray) when one is doing penance. However, because gray does denote ashes, in John Carter, it makes more sense that the gray invokes "the ashes of destruction" because the Therns want Barsoom destroyed, and use the great weapon they bequeath to Sab Than to destroy, not preserve. Since gray covers the Therns entirely, they themselves are completely involved in destruction. On his chest is a medallion, which is the means to transport himself in-between worlds and to exercise all his power (discussed below). Because it's over his heart (or, in the place where his heart should be) that power is what they love and gives them strength and purpose. I am not sure the right word to describe it, but the outfit has a gathered, or creased look to the fabric that, upon close examination, both resembles an animal's fur and the sand dunes of a desert.
When the film opens, there is a monologue introducing us to the political situation in Mars, "the red planet," the dying planet, because the Zodangans, a "predator city," is robbing the planet of what little oxygen it has. Their leader, Sab Than (Dominic West), battles the city of Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) for complete control over Barsoom. The Therns appear to Sab Than and tell him that he has been chosen by the goddess Issus to yield a weapon of the Ninth Ray so he can subjugate the city of Helium, rule Barsoom and ensure its destruction and Sab Than gratefully takes the Therns up on their offer. Using the Ninth Ray, Sab Than is able to corner Helium's warriors during a sandstorm and capitalize on his advantage that puts him in a position to force his rival Tardos Mors for the hand of his daughter, Deja.
Dominic West as Sab Than, leader of the warring Zodangans. His people are using up all the oxygen on Mars and hastening the death of the planet. That they are fighting with the people of Helium means the planet is in a civil war. These are all important matters to consider in putting together a coherent understanding of the film.
Examining the lines of narration above, it doesn't make sense that "messengers of a goddess" would, as we later discover, hasten and steer dying worlds towards their ultimate doom. That's just not what gods and goddesses do, unless they are evil, in which case, they are demons. This is just how art works, the values upon which it is built so that it can universally communicate with an audience; that there is a kink in the vocabulary may be the reason critics have panned the film so thoroughly, but not a reason for us to be deterred in finding out what it really means.
Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his daughter, the princess Deja (Lynn Collins). Sab Than's strength is so great now that Helium can no longer fight. Deja has found the Ninth Ray, the source of the power of Sab Than's weapon, but her work was destroyed by a Thern so her father is now telling her that Sab Than's price for peace is her hand in marriage and she's not particularly excited about that.
I wouldn't ask you to consider the Therns to be demons unless I could substantiate it. First, death, destruction, chaos are all negative values, that is, anything leading to death is viewed as bad, hence evil, by our culture, but this is exactly what they are doing. Secondly, just so we know, without a doubt, that the great power in the weapon given to Sab Than to rule Barsoom is meant to be used for evil, Deja finds, harnesses and presents the same power to her father so they can use it to defend themselves and use it for endless scientific discoveries. Just as she is presenting it to her father and the other leaders of Helium, a Thern uses his power to cause it to explode, thereby destroying Helium's chances at using the power for good instead of evil. That's pretty persuasive right there that Therns only favor destruction and annihilation.
John Carter being "overwhelmed" by the Ninth Ray power (the web-like blue stuff all over him, which is how it ties into the spider cave and the web of the universe and inter-connectivity of all things, etc.).
But one last item.
In my post John Carter and the Political Language of Barsoom, I took great care in listing off all the films John Carter sites and references, with the exception of two. What character is Mark Strong best known for? Lord Blackwood in the 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes (and this isn't a stretch; Mr. Strong is an accomplished actor with a good range of flexibility in his voice and expressions, so when he's talking to John Carter and explaining what is going to happen, that he intentionally incorporates his "Lord Blackwood" persona is meant to make us remember that character). What was it Lord Blackwood wanted to do? Use satanic "magic" to take over Parliament and rule the world.
Matai Shang and John Carter watching the wedding procession.
Secondly, Dominic West is best known for playing the corrupt senator Theron in 300 of 2006. What did he do? He was a senator making deals to sell Sparta to the Persians for his own profit. Again, I argued previously that John Carter is intentionally siting other films so that we would experience deja vu (like the name of the princess) so we could incorporate those films into a dialogue with John Carter (this approach is known as Reader Response, which targets the knowledge of art/film/literature an audience all ready has when they enter into a new art experience and upon which artists will draw to reference situations for the "informed audience").
Matai Shang has sided with the Tharks (the four-armed green guys) to kill John Carter so he can't interfere with his plan. This shot clearly indicates his means of "controlling" events and people and manipulating outcomes.
There is a power Therns have: shape-shifting. A Thern can take on the appearance of any person, even (at one point in the story) John Carter himself.  What other villain have we recently been introduced to that can do this same thing? Thor's Loki, the god of mischief (Tom Hiddleston) who is also the primary villain in the summer's upcoming The Avengers. Shape-shifting is an artistic way of demonstrating how someone is lying, how they are manipulating the truth to their advantage (but, as in Thor, John Carter is also separated by the solar system from his love, Deja, as Thor is separated from Jane so this provides two strong references to the film).
When the Therns use their power, their eyes turn completely icy blue. We have seen this color before, the rock in Chronicle. As I have said, the color blue can either mean depression or wisdom (because the road to wisdom is often accompanied by sadness), however, icy blue such as this can invoke ice (when, for example, ice has recently broken off a glacier, you can tell because it will be an icy blue just like that color). Given the desert of Mars, we can compare their eyes to another desert: an arctic desert, of waste and barrenness.
If we understand the political language, and hence the destiny of Barsoom to be in the control of the demonic Therns, then their control and manipulation of Sab Than would make him an Anti-Christ figure because, just as Sab Than appears to be making peace in wanting to show his concern for Deja and the union with Helium, so the Anti-Christ is supposed to make peace and be a conciliator (from the book of Revelations in the Bible).
A fresco of the anti-Christ with the devil whispering instructions into his ear, which is exactly what happens in John Carter with the Therns constantly giving instructions to Sab Than on maximizing his circumstances (no one else can see the Therns unless they want to be seen by them). Deeds of the Anti-Christ by Luca Signorelli, circa 1501.
Why would that be important?
We're not looking at Mars in the 1860's, we are looking at the United States today. All films exist within a political context and John Carter clearly demonstrates a self-awareness at encoding; why encode? If the message is politically sensitive enough, it could be fear of reprisals but also because that's what art does: it presents a parable to us (like Christ's teachings) because if it's a good enough parable, it will stay with us longer than a mere command or statement.
The female figure on the far left, wearing the brown clothing and not the sheer gold cloth like the rest of the women, is a Thern who has shape-shifted to spy on Deja during her wedding preparations.
If the makers of John Carter are stating that we should be weary of someone who has started a civil war in this country, and is using their power to destroy--rather than build--the country, and if the makers of John Carter are warning us against making a "marriage alliance" with that destroyer, despite how strong that figure might appear to be, we have to read "the writing on the wall" as in the Book of Daniel, and decide, just like the war-weary John Carter, which side we are going to take.
Deja helping John to read "the writing on the wall" in the temple.
An interesting feature of the story is, John Carter realizes that his body is like a telecopy, i.e., his real body is left on earth while a copy of it is on Barsoom, fighting a political battle. It's not dissimilar to ourselves, because John Carter's "telecopy" body is like our own, that is, "our political body," and just as we are individuals within our own identity, there is a copy of us present in the greater political drama being played out in the country and in the world and we have to decide which side we are going to take.
John Carter first waking up on Mars.
With all the facets the film ties together, and the striving to teach us the language of Barsoom, we are invited to take our entertainment seriously. Given how reactionary the reviews have been towards the film, indicates that there is something far more important taking place than a typical theatrical flop. As always, we each decide what message we will take (if any) from our encounters with art, but it is clear that John Carter wants us to be reminded that things aren't always what they appear to be, and that we have greater power than what we might imagine.
Deja and Sab Than drinking from the wedding chalice.