Stream On: Cowboys and—what? ‘Outer Range’ and ‘John Carter’

By on December 22, 2022

If flying saucers can disrupt the action in Fargo (season 2) and magic realism can rule the day on Northern Exposure and elsewhere, what’s a little science fiction in westerns? A lot of fun, is what!


/Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /2022 /TV16+

Do you know anything about a Greek god called Chronos? He carried a sickle. He used it to cut a hole, a tear in the cosmos between heaven and earth. To separate this world and the next. To separate the known … from the unknown. The world has been waiting for something like this.

Josh Brolin (Sicario) stars in this excellent Amazon series as Royal Abbott, a rancher. One morning his wife (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under) tells him, “I had the dream again. Rebecca stepped right out of the dark. Amy ran into her arms. Perry, too. We all cried with joy. I didn’t want to wake up.

“Royal, don’t tell that to Perry.”

“I never do.”

Riding the ranch on a sunny Sunday morning, he hears a low rumble; at home, his wife tells him to hurry up for church. His watch says it’s 8:00; the wall clock says 10:00. That night, after another rumbling disturbance, he finds a hole that’s more like a void, in a distant pasture. It’s twenty feet across, a perfect circle, that goes straight down into the earth as far as can be seen; up close it appears to be filled with mist. His horse wants no part of it. Royal drops a big stone into it and listens for a long time, hearing nothing.

He reaches down into it, and has a vision: His wife, at the entrance to their kitchen, looks at him and says, “Joy’s here.” He looks into the kitchen, and a white light ends the vision.

Royal rides back to the ranch house; three trucks are parked outside. His wife, at the entrance to their kitchen, looks at him and says, “Joy’s here.” Inside is the deputy sheriff, Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski), and Royal’s two sons. “Joy’s been telling us how the FBI’s gonna stop looking for Rebecca.”

“It’s the nine-month mark,” Joy says. Lowers the priority.”

As setups go, it’s goo-ood, as is the direction and cinematography, and the acting, particularly the interplay between Royal and “Autumn” (Imogen Poots), a mysterious camper from Montana who is in a tent on the west pasture and might not have hooves for feet. Comparisons to Yellowstone are no longer a distraction once we see the hole, and the plot becomes more intriguing with each twist. The synopsis on TheMovieDB.org reads, A rancher fighting for his land and family stumbles upon an unfathomable mystery at the edge of Wyoming’s wilderness, forcing a confrontation with the Unknown in ways both intimate and cosmic in the untamable American West.” The series’ tagline is “The land has its secrets.”


/Amazon /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /2012 /PG13

In this Disney movie, John Carter, a former Civil War Confederate Army captain, goes to Mars in 1881 and takes part in the war between the Red Martian cities of Helium and Zodanga.

Don’t laugh! I chanced upon this movie back when I was watching network television and it grabbed me right up. It’s a treatment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 book A Princess of Mars (which can be read here). Burroughs was a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, and is known today for Tarzan of the Apes (read that here.)

I’m not a big fan of high fantasy—I liked the first “Star Wars” trilogy: IV, V and VI, but I recognize those films as essentially fan fiction, homages to theatrical serials like Flash Gordon of the 1930’s, which, it turns out, were inspired by Burroughs’ fiction, and others’. (My home-town church showed those to kids on Saturdays in the 1950’s, with free popcorn!) But I do have a soft spot for pedigree, movies from writers such as C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia)—although a few Hobbits go a long way with me.

But Edgar Rice Burroughs! I had no idea he had this kind of catalog, beyond “me Tarzan, you Jane!”—and this 2012 film from his first “Barsoom” series novel, A Princess of Mars, is just excellent, even though it bombed, losing $200 million. (What does a movie titled “John Carter” mean to anyone?)

The poster, to start, holds this allure for me: the cast. It stars Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, Waco), fresh from Lights, with Mark Strong (Low Winter Sun, about which I’m planning to write), Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Thomas Haden Church (Peanut Butter Falcon), David Schwimmer (Band of Brothers), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood) and Willem Dafoe among others.

(And it’s not strictly a western, although it takes place in the 19th century. Perhaps on the west side of Mars? Actually it’s as much a western as Star Wars…)

The opening scenes before the credits are impressive. An air battle ensues between two Martian cities, as imagined by Burroughs in 1912. There are firearms that appear to use gunpowder, and swords, but also a death-ray—and instead of fighting frigates there are wooden airships, propelled by what appear to be flexible wings in series instead of oars. The leader of the aggressor state Zodanga, Sab Than (an evil-looking Dominic West) is cornered; his escort and most of his own ship wiped out by a blue death ray that stops at his feet. Three celestial emissaries float down from the sky; the leader (Mark Strong) hands Than a weapon that “the princess wishes you to have.”

Roll credits.

Burroughs’ foreword to the novel reads, “My first recollection of Captain Carter is of the few months he spent at my father’s home in Virginia, just prior to the opening of the civil war. I was then a child of but five years, yet I well remember the tall, dark, smooth-faced, athletic man whom I called Uncle Jack…

“A strange feature about [his] tomb, where his body still lies, is that the massive door is equipped with a single, huge gold-plated spring lock which can be opened only from the inside.”

The movie takes us to 1881 New York City, where Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is being shadowed on the street, but eludes his follower. He sends a telegram to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) who travels to Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. and there meets Carter’s butler, who brings “sad tidings.”

From his late uncle’s secret memoirs, “Ned” Burroughs reads an account of Carter’s adventures on Barsoom (Mars). It’s a truly epic movie with great special effects and fine characters, one of the most expensive ever made, alas, costing around $350 million dollars. In spite of its box-office performance, a victim of terrible marketing, you should see it if you care for epic westerns cum fantasy films, and probably even if you don’t. Edgar Rice Burroughs would be proud. But why on earth, or Barsoom, wasn’t it titled A Princess of Mars?

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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