Film review: John Carter

posted at 11:30 am on March 11, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

I had serious misgivings about seeing John Carter before I went to the theater last night.  In fact, after reading the plot summary from its IMDB page to my wife, she wished me a pleasant evening by myself and stayed home.  After all, a film about a Civil War veteran ending up on Mars does sound a bit ridiculous in a Cowboys & Aliens way, but John Carter actually works better than that movie, thanks to the literary foundation given to it by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from whose novel “A Princess of Mars” the film was derived.

John Carter starts off with a young Edgar Rice Burroughs being summoned by uncle John who dies before Edgar can get to him.  A rich but eccentric man, John spent most of his short years between the Civil War and his death exploring — apparently for a specific reason, although no one could determine what it was.  A journal left behind for Edgar’s eyes only explains what John had been doing all those years, why he became fabulously wealthy — and why the stories he told his nephew as a little boy were actually true.  And it might just be that Edgar, now a young man, has a role to play in John’s adventure still.

Even after taking my seat with a healthy level of skepticism, it was impossible for me to not enjoy this film from almost the very beginning.  The circumstances of John’s death gives the early sequences a 19th-century mystery feel, which then gives way to a Western, and then finally a mix of Western and space opera that works better than it sounds.  The visual presentation has a similar feel at times to Thor, and at other times to Dune, while the machinery resembles more the technological spirit of 2002’s The Time Machine.  Getting the nuances of the different tribes and races of Mars took a little time — the Tharks, the humanoids from the city-states of Helium and Zadonga, and the Therns, who in the film are a malevolent and potentially immortal force — but was not a large hurdle.  The action is well-mixed with the necessary exposition, and the pace never feels either lethargic or forced.

Excellent performances by the cast certainly add to the success of the film.  Some fans will recognize the two leads, Taylor Kitsch as John and Lynn Collins as the Mars princess Dejah Thoris, from their previous work in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where both had smaller roles and didn’t interact with each other.  Kitsch carries the film well, but Collins is especially good, projecting strength, vulnerability, and passion — along with the kind of sultry exotic look that one would expect from a Burroughs story.  Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church voice the main Tharks, with Morton being particularly good as Sola.  Interestingly, I recognized Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy from their work on the brilliant miniseries Rome as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, respectively — and in John Carter, their roles have a similar relationship, although much more benign.

John Carter has plenty of surprises and edge-of-the-seat action all the way to the very end.  It won’t win a nomination for Best Picture, but as a fun adventure and popcorn movie, it’s terrific and smarter than most, especially this time of year.  Don’t be surprised at the end if you’d like another trip to Mars very soon.

John Carter is rated PG-13, with a lot of violence, some of it quite bloody (even if the blood might be another color at times) and very intense.  It has no foul language or nudity — a few skimpy outfits for Collins, but nothing one wouldn’t have seen on a Xena: Warrior Princess episode.  I wouldn’t take my oldest granddaughter to see it and she’s nearly 10 years old; I think it’s probably appropriate for teenagers, but I’d be leery about going any younger.

Update: A couple of points of clarification.  I’ve never read the Burroughs novels, so I can’t judge how well the filmmakers adapted the source material, although I’d be curious to hear from Burroughs readers to get their reaction.  Second — and I should have mentioned this in the review — I saw the 3-D version last night, which was well done but probably isn’t necessary to enjoy the movie.

Update II: I referred to Cowboys Vs Aliens in the first paragraph, but the film was called Cowboys & AliensHere’s my review of it.

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I really, really wanted to like this movie. I have been a Burroughs fan for most of my life, first getting hooked on reruns of the Ron Ely Tarzan series and then the Gold Key comics and then finding the original books. I read and reread the entire Tarzan series, the Mars series, the Venus series, the Pellucidar series, the Caspak trilogy, the Moon trilogy, and ERB’s doublets and one-off books countless times.

I enjoyed the terrifically imaginative plots, but what was most valued by me was the role models provided by the Burroughs Hero, a man of courage, strength, resourcefulness, honour, stoic toughness, and chivalry, a man who would not hesitate to lay down his life in defence of the female or any other noble cause. I saw ERB’s “Tarzan of the Apes” as the polar opposite of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”; Golding told us that, if circumstances became tough enough, the best of us would descend to savagery, while ERB told us that the noble man, regardless of the savage circumstances in which he finds himself, can survive and thrive with his nobility intact. Golding may or may not be closer to the truth, but ERB’s message is doubtless the better one to give to impressionable growing boys. John Carter, too, exemplified this view, triumphing over his difficult circumstances, rising above them in triumph by the strength of his character and his own right arm. As Dejah Thoris notes, after he has saved her from the Zodangans:

“‘Was there ever such a man!’ she exclaimed. ‘I know that Barsoom has never before seen your like. Can it be that all Earth men are as you? Alone, a stranger, hunted, threatened, persecuted, you have done in a few short months what in all the past ages of Barsoom no man has ever done: joined together the wild hordes of the sea bottoms and brought them to fight as allies of a red Martian people.”

(There is a hint here of a little known fact: contrary to popular opinion, ERB was a powerful voice against racism. But that is beyond the scope of this comment.)

There was a massive resurgence of interest in Burroughs’ books starting in 1963, ironically triggered when a California librarian removed “Tarzan of the Apes” from the shelves, thinking (wrongly) that Tarzan and Jane had never been properly wed. In the next twenty years or so, hundreds of millions of copies of ERB’s books were sold around the world. But since then, the interest in ERB has waned dramatically, and America is poorer for the eclipse of the Burroughs hero. He has been replaced by the modern anti-hero, the psychologically troubled, existential, self-serving hedonist. Nobility for its own sake is despised, and it shows in the decline of the national character.

The productions of ERB properties since have not helped. His characters have been recast in politically correct fashion, usually showing Tarzan as a rather dumb environmentalist. I have been hoping that something would come along which would revive interest in the real Burroughs characters, and I hoped mightily that this move would be it. So I really, really wanted to like the movie.

Sad to say, I can’t. The special effects are terrific, but not much more can be said. The story has been dramatically altered, which I expected, but it has become muddled and somewhat incoherent. Who are the Therns? Why are they doing what they’re doing? If they’re so powerful, capable of shape-shifting and interpalentary travel, why do they need a dumb thug like Sab Than? If Sab Than does not actually want Dejah Thoris but only conquest, why does he suspend the latter to pursue the former? If it’s because the Therns want it, why do they want it? And how come, if a Thern can immobilize John Carter by pointing a finger at him, does he fear Carter rushing at him from a distance with nothing but a sword?

I thought the acting was mediocre at best, and the lead roles woefully miscast. Kitsch’s beard and long hair were not needed nor appreciate, nor the inane red tattoos all over Dejah Thoris.

But the real problem was the politically correct redefinition of John Carter. He is not the Burroughs hero: the ridiculous obsession with his “cave of gold,” the unnecessary and unclear backstory of his first wife and child (since, you know, the modern hero cannot do something good just for the sake of doing something good; he must be motivated by inner demons), and most of all his wimpiness. Yes, wimpiness. ERB’s John Carter was a warrior par excellence, his earth muscles more than a match for a Thark. Yet in this movie he was thrown around like a rag doll even by female Tharks. Yes, there was one scene in which he wasted a lot of Warhoons, but that only made the other scenes the more ludicrous in comparison. And when “the greatest swordsman of two worlds,” as ERB described him, sees Dejah Thoris strike down warriors attacking him and says, “Maybe I should get behind you,” I was ready to walk out of the theatre.

So that’s my take on “John Carter.” I still have some slim hope that sometime someone will do Burroughs right and there will be a resurgence of interest in ERB’s books, but this movie will definitely not be the thing that does it.

Canadian on March 12, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Canadian on March 12, 2012 at 1:30 PM

Thank you for your honest, insightful take on the John Carter movie. Yes, I agree, Hollywood is completely incapable of recognizing that such a caliber of hero does or ever did exist, even in fiction. I can also agree that without the constant badgering by us, the moviegoers, the spineless wastes that call themselves “movie producers” will never be able to produce a movie without all the political hangups Hollywood is so notorious for. That said, I’m just happy that the story was able to make it to the screen, and that the folks who have shown an interest would take the extra step and read the ERB novels.

Only then would the moviegoer ever catch an actual glimpe of what John Carter truly was.

Turtle317 on March 12, 2012 at 3:23 PM

I doubt you could have a 2ish hour movie totally faithful to the books.

John Carter was depowered in the movie. They downplayed the friendship between Tars Tarkas and JC. They added an unnecessary murdered family plot line. But still, the main essentials of his character were still there.

Lets not be too rigid about it. It was a fun movie, and will add more ERB fans for the future.

Chubbs65 on March 12, 2012 at 3:33 PM