John Carter

I vaguely remember reading one or two of the John Carter of Mars stories (also called Barsoom) when I was in middle school. It’s been a long time, though, so I don’t recall many details; I do, however, maintain a deep respect for the franchise because of its massive impact on science fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created Tarzan) wrote the first book 100 years ago, and its influence ranges from Conan to Star Wars to Avatar. So when seeing that somebody (Disney, to be precise) was finally tackling the task of adapting the stories to film, I was curious and wanted to see it. Enough so that I took the rare (for me) step of attending a midnight premiere, being one of the first people to see the new film. This wasn’t without some trepidation, as there are definite pitfalls to be avoided, and the preliminary marketing for John Carter has been rocky at best, starting with the name changes and continuing on with the early trailers.

I can understand not wanting to call it A Princess of Mars, as with the first Barsoom novel; hearing “princess” in connection with “Disney” gives a very specific mental image to today’s audiences, and it’s not one that would be appropriate. But I do think they took a bit of a misstep in dropping the “of Mars” from John Carter of Mars. Supposedly this change was made out of concerns that women and girls would not want to see a movie with “Mars” in the title; personally, I suspect this is underestimating females, and I think the title lacks something when it’s just the guy’s name. As influential as Edgar Rice Burrough’s work is, it’s 100 years old, and most people today haven’t read it. They don’t know who “John Carter” is. But if you call the work John Carter of Mars, they at least start to get an idea. As a fellow theatre patron and I discussed, even calling it Barsoom would at least have been more evocative of a sense of wonder, even if it’s not any clearer. It wasn’t a big deal to me as far as my anticipation of the film, but it did (and does) have me concerned about the public reception of it. The trailers, which initially looked shallow and hokey, weren’t helping.

There are a lot of possible pitfalls that could have been made with this movie. They could have updated the setting. They could have had weak dialogue, or weak performances. The four-armed Tharks could have looked out of place with conspicuous CGI, or could have moved in a way that didn’t look natural. They could have left out parts that gave the movie a bit of depth, or had an insufficient amount of action scenes. There are probably dozens of ways this movie could have gone wrong.

I am happy to report that it avoided them all.

The movie is set in the late 1800s, just as with the original novel, and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) remains a veteran of the Confederate Army from the Civil War. We’re given glimpses of his lost family life, and his current status as a loner prospector. The film even keeps the pretense of him being Edgar Rice Burroughs’s uncle (Burroughs being played here by Daryl Sabara), and the events of the film are related to Edgar through John Carter’s journal. It shows a degree of respect for the original work in that this detail, which the movie could easily have been written without, is not only preserved but important to the film.

When John Carter gets transported to Mars, he encounters, is abducted by, and adopted by, a clan of the Tharks — a green, four-armed race of Martians. He is adopted by Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton), instilled with the language of Barsoom, and championed as a warrior by the chief of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Meanwhile, across the globe, Mars has a civil war of its own, as two great cities of the Red Martians are in conflict; the aggressive leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West) has demanded the hand of Helium’s princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) in marriage as a requirement for peace. Naturally, she refuses, and just as naturally, this conflict spreads to where it is witnessed by the Tharks — and most particularly John Carter.

(I’ll note, on the side, that the “Red Martians” aren’t depicted as being particularly red here; while they’re darker than John Carter, it’s not the superhuman red that pulp fiction cover artists typically depicted them as. It appears to have been managed primarily through casting decisions, and making sure that all the human-character actors got tans except for Taylor Kitsch. While having white people in “red face”, so to speak, would be offensive if they were trying to play Native Americans — or any other color of human race — here it’s just an alien race that is distinct from any Earth culture. It works reasonably well at making John Carter and the Martians look just different enough for him to stand out, while still having the Martians look human to the audience.)

The dialogue and acting come across a lot better in the movie than they did in the trailers; I’m seriously feeling like the trailers were just plain botched. There are a few awkward lines here and there, but no more than most quality action or sci-fi movies. For the most part, dialogue is natural, and the acting jobs by all the principal actors give a sense of the characters’ personalities even in simple lines. Kitsch does a good job of showing John Carter as a good man who has become tired of doing good for others, and needs to be reminded why he wants to be. And then he does a good job of being the exciting action lead, and the inspiring war hero. Lynn Collins’s portrayal of Dejah Thoris is just a bit subdued, but it works, and there’s enough chemistry between the characters to make their scenes together entertaining and believable. The romance angle is just a tad too pat, but what can you do? That’s a criticism that can be leveled at almost any sci-fi film. Dominic West makes a credible bad guy, and Mark Strong, who played a creepy evil mystic in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, does so again here and again manages to be supremely sinister. He’s on his way to getting typecast as skin-crawling bad guy, but if that’s how it works out for him, at least we’ll have some cool bad guys to watch. The Tharks, of course, are CGI rendered, but they look great, move naturally, and their faces are animated in ways that make their moods easy to read, especially with the skilled voice acting that is given to the major roles.

James Purefoy plays a small role in the film as Captain Kantos Kan, which I want to draw attention to because although it’s a very short scene, the character’s personality shines through and is very entertaining. I hope we see more of this character in future films.

The film was directed by Andrew Stanton, who previous directed some films for Pixar. It shows. The CGI looks good, and the cinematography always looks great, whether it’s a scene set on Earth or on Mars. Character designs, and particularly machine designs are wondrous, with a unique visual style. It also is a film that gets good mileage out of 3D. But the film doesn’t just look pretty, it tells a good story as well. It’s a fun action-adventure romp, but it’s not completely shallow either. There are deeper films out there, but there’s enough meat to this for it feel like a worthy entry into the field of science fiction films.

As I’ve commented in a few places, I am concerned about the possible public reception of the film. Coming out on the heels of Avatar, it would be very easy for the general public to have a knee-jerk reaction to it as being a “rip-off” of James Cameron’s film, and to reject it on that basis, or to reject it on the basis of the weak early trailers. This would be a mistake. As I noted in my review of Avatar (written, incidentally, long before I had any idea John Carter was on the horizon), Avatar borrows heavily from the original John Carter of Mars stories, as well as numerous other sources. There are, therefore, similarities, but John Carter is based on the original work, and keeps true to the original work, and so it stands as its own film, with a storyline that should not feel like a ripoff even to people who aren’t familiar with Burroughs’s stories. And it’s a good film, at that. The Barsoom novels were a major influence on modern science fiction, and have deserved a good film treatment for the 100 years of their existence. They finally have one. Now they deserve to have it be successful. It’s not perfect, but it’s very good, and the potential is there for the sequels to be excellent. But that’s not going to happen if the early tracking for this film doesn’t get turned around, which is part of why I’ve dropped my trademark snark for this review; with the bad hand this film was dealt from its mishandled marketing, I don’t want to risk contributing to its perception problems. It needs and deserves to get a lot of positive word of mouth. Hopefully it will get that… certainly the crowd of people I was watching it with all seemed to enjoy it, and after the show I overheard several conversations about how various aspects of the film would work. I normally hear that only after good science fiction, fantasy and superhero features; people don’t care to discuss the bad ones. So that, at least, is a promising sign.

If you like science fiction movies, if you like action/adventure movies, go see this film. See a great movie that’s directly based on the work that most of your favorite sci-fi films are indirectly based on. You’ll enjoy it.

Rating: 5 Stars

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16 thoughts on “John Carter

  1. Despite occasional moments of silliness, the old-fashioned sense of adventure and brilliantly rendered aliens elevate this above other derivative big-budget sci-fi fare. I still wished that Kitsch did a lot better in this lead role but he was only there for eye-candy really. Good review Morgan.

    • He is one of the weaker spots, though I think he’s getting a bit of a bad rap to some extent in that the character he’s playing is meant to be fairly reserved and withdrawn for most of it.

  2. I know you read mine, so you know already we dont see eye to eye on this one. I cant muster the enthusiasm for it.

    I dont think it avoided all the pitfalls (or ways it could go wrong)… unfortunately I think it falls into the sci-fi trap of trying to introduce to much, which leads to too much exposition. You know how I felt about the dialogue too.

    I also felt the action scenes (while unique for the most part) weren’t that great.

    It’s where I’m at, but I’m glad its not where you’re at. Always happy when people dig on movies man.

    • I suppose I don’t usually view a lot of exposition as a bad thing… but I know that is a problem for a lot of people. I remember similar complaints about The Matrix… people want everything in tiny little digestible chunks.

      Still, even though you didn’t give it a great score, at least I can see where you’re coming from on it. I’ve seen some people just absolutely tearing into it, and I think they’re far enough off the mark that it’s silly. (Many of them, of course, are accusing it of being derivative… literacy failure on their part, I feel.)

        • Yeah, it’s not an easy issue to get around, sure. And if someone wants to say it feels familiar, sure. I’ll grant that. Mind you, most of anything in the genre does by this point. But when two thirds or better of the genre is inspired by the original work, yeah, I can see familiarity being an unfortunate deterrent. I’m mostly ragging on those that level it with the “rip off” invective… if someone just says it’s familiar, OK. It is. But I think when somebody comes out and calls something a rip-off — and I have, as I expected, seen a few reviews calling it a rip-off of Avatar, Star Wars, etc. — then that person needs to be able to back up their argument. That goes beyond good/bad subjectivity and into objective criteria. And the facts simply don’t support it in this case.

          But being familiar? Yeah. I think I even touched on that as a potential issue for some people in my review. My hope would be that people can look past that the same way they should be able to look back on an older inspirational film and recognize it as being the place where the cliches come from. But I know that’s not always easy, especially when there’s a 100 year gap between the novel and the movie of the novel.

  3. Wow you really liked this! It seems like reviews are all over the place for John Carter. I certainly am intrigued enough to give it a rental when it hits DVD but I will save my money for a busy rest of the cinematic year :D

    • The reviews certainly are inconsistent… definitely no “consensus” here. But yes, I got a real kick out of it. As I was discussing with Fogs, I can see some of why people didn’t, it just was mostly stuff that either wouldn’t bother me (exposition, a retro feel) or stuff that I felt should be looked past (familiarity due to its source material being inspirational to a lot of stuff).

  4. I haven’t seen this movie yet, so I really can’t say.
    But there’s one thing I’m sure of: you’re right, Morgan. If “Mars” was in the title, I would have see it already!

    • Thanks, Jersey. I think that’s been the one constant among all the reviews, positive, negative, or in-between; we all agree that the marketing team really fumbled the ball on this.

  5. For me, this wasn’t without its weaknesses, but it’s much stronger than the marketing gave it credit for and far better still than many writers are saying. The script’s a mess, and needed a really good hard edit to tighten the narrative and pacing, excise the extraneous, problematic elements of plot, and generally improve the overall tone and attitude of the movie.

    Beyond all of that– and Kitsch, who works well when it’s time to get physical and feels pretty bland the rest of the time– this is a good, solid bit of sci-fi. I don’t get what Disney was doing with the marketing. If the ties to Star Wars, Avatar, and even Superman are so obvious, then embrace them. A Princess of Mars spawned those characters and franchises! The marketing should have capitalized on that. Big time.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for swinging by! A bit of editing could certainly have tightened up this movie some (granted, that’s probably true of any movie, but it’s clear here that a lot of people had a bigger issue with it here than I did, so something could have been done.)

      The marketing was just disastrous on this film… I mean, I know my marketing experience consists of one high school class and half a bus. ad. minor, but the errors here are just so obvious I can’t see how they missed them. The “before Star Wars, before Avatar, there was John Carter” should have come at the beginning of the marketing campaign, and it should have explained just what they meant by that (because most viewers today wouldn’t know). Disney’s animated adaptation of Tarzan was successful, and people always know Tarzan anyway, let people know this is by the same guy. Let them know it’s a 100-year-old story that built the foundations of modern adventure sci-fi. And don’t use a non-descriptive title such as John Carter for it… people don’t know John Carter from Michael Clayton or Larry Crowne. He’s just another guy they aren’t familiar with. Even if, as the producer says, they wanted to leave off “of Mars” because it’s his origin story, why not add “of Earth”? That still gets the “sci-fi adventure” idea across.

      I’m ranting here, again. :D I will say that the posters did a much better job than most of the marketing.

      • You’re preaching to the choir here, Morgan. I agree with every single point you make here, especially that tagline. The way that this wound up being handled is just a huge mystery to me. I don’t get it. At all. And yes, this definitely should have been John Carter of Mars. The title as it stands tells you nothing about the film or the world being explored, and I don’t buy the explanation being peddled by the cast and crew about how, “he’s not John Carter of Mars until the end!”. Spare me. The title’s just rote and generic.

    • I have a feeling this is one that’s going to remain divisive… like you say, a lot of people seem to be bashing it, and there aren’t a lot of people taking a middle ground. (Fogs is one exception, Roger Ebert is another.) But yes, I liked it, and I was glad to see you did as well.

  6. Pingback: Follow Fridays!: Morgan on Media | Fogs' Movie Reviews

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