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MOVIE REVIEW: John Carter (2012)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Often visually striking, occasionally breathtaking, yet too long and uninvolving, John Carter often remains too reverent to the source material to be fully successful.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After the Civil War, former Confederate soldier John Carter is suddenly transported to Mars, where he finds himself thrust into conflict between warring factions.

PROS: Well-realized renderings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom; impressive effects: good cast; eye-candy for men (Lynn Collins) and women (Taylor Kitsch).
CONS: Needless prologue; far too much exposition, causing pace to drag; respectful script that never lets loose the source material’s energy; uninvolving in places and occasionally too long.

This isn’t the review I wanted to write.  I should be grateful that, nearly one hundred years after Captain John Carter first woke on the red sands of Barsoom in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, after numerous false starts and a disastrous straight-to-DVD release starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. and Traci Lords, the dream of seeing one of Burroughs’s great heroes finally becomes reality.

So why should my reaction to John Carter be so tepid?  Director Andrew Stanton, who helmed A Bug’s Life and Wall-E, not only possesses the knowledge of genre but also no small amount of love.  His co-screenwriters include Michael Chabon, who has the distinction of winning not only the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) but also the Hugo Award (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), wrote the screenplay for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and professes a surprising reverence for all things geek.  Say what one will about most science fiction movies, at least this time the makers know their stuff, and unlike faux geek Zack Snyder, have the talent to breathe life into their movie.  Make no mistake: John Carter breathes, but too often it needs the aid of a respirator.

It starts on the wrong foot.  In a brief prologue Prince Sab Than of Zodanga (Dominic West) battles an army before being given an exceptional technological gift by the Holy Thern Matai Shang (Mark Strong), which will give him an edge in defeating the armies of the city Helium.  While this sequence introduces viewers to this particular vision of Mars, feels tacked-on and unnecessary.  Worse, with a voice-over that tells the audience that Barsoom is a dying world, it evokes the opening monologue of David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune.  If you want to rouse your audience with a compelling pulp adventure, you may not want to invite comparisons to the artistic clumsiness of that particular effort.

Sadly, it stumbles again after the movie’s title card, in which a young Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arrives at his uncle John Carter’s (Taylor Kitsch; and I’m really trying not to make jokes about his name) estate after his death to read a manuscript.  Why do this?  Perhaps because it fits with the preface in Burroughs’s novel.  Stanton, co-writer Mark Andrews, and Chabon so want to pay their respects that they provide an embellishment that, frankly, would have better served the movie had it been removed.

But then young Burroughs reads the manuscript, and the story can finally begin.  While hiding from Apaches, Captain John Carter, formerly of the Confederate States of America, encounters a strange man in a gold-lined cave.  After a scuffle that knocks him unconscious, Carter awakens to find himself on the arid sands of Barsoom, where the lighter gravity increases his strength and gives him the ability to leap far distances.  (Learning to use his powers turns out to be one of the movie’s more amusing highlights.)  While bounding across the desert he meets the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, ultimately earning the friendship of warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).  An aerial attack leads to the Tharks’ capture of Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who, in traditional fashion, has been sworn to wed Prince Sab Than in order to bring peace to Helium and Zodanga.  Supposedly.  At any rate, Carter, who left earth a shell of his former self because of a family tragedy (told in flashbacks) during the war, decides to aid Dejah Thoris.

John Carter shines when it sticks closely to its pulp roots.  Carter’s fight with a four-armed white ape amidst cheering Tharks showcases the best aspects of the character and the material, as do the battle sequences.  Unfortunately, the script bogs everything down with pretension, as if Stanton, Andrews, and Chabon want somehow to transcend the material rather than embrace its lowbrow pleasures.  Or perhaps they so love the material that they feel it ought to be given the same considerations Hugh Hudson gave Tarzan in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.  Understandable, given Chabon’s unconditional admiration of planetary romance, but it hobbles the script…which, in turn, weakens Stanton’s direction.  The movie drags where it should soar like the Barsoomian flying machines.

These problems, in turn, bleed into the cast.  While competent, none of the leads or supporting actors brings more than their minimal game to John Carter, especially bothersome in the cases of Strong and Ciarán Hinds, both of whom gave incredible performances in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  Perhaps Stanton thought the inherent physical beauty of Kitch and Collins could make up for their routine interpretations of the title character and Dejah Thoris, respectively, but tighter focus from all of the thespians would have made up for the movie’s fitful pace.

And yet I can’t completely fault the movie.  The Martian vistas are breathtaking, as are the spires of Helium.  Such moments offer a grandeur that John Carter sorely needs, vistas that, for me, fulfill a thirty-year-old longing to witness.

Ultimately, perhaps the problem lies with age and time.  Burroughs’s landmark character contributed so much of his creative DNA to Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, and a host of other movies that the sense of wonder those early tales inspired simply cannot have the same frisson as before.  I wish I could have offered effulgent praise for John Carter.  Instead, I’ll have to settle for the smile of recognition it brought to me.

14 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: John Carter (2012)

  1. Boo.

    Well, I am going to see it tonight, and see how my experience compares with yours, Derek. Yours seems of a piece with Roger Ebert’s: Meh.

  2. TheAdlerian // March 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm //


    If the movie isn’t about some popular liberal trend, it’s not worth watching.

    I’m super liberal, but can’t stand propaganda so I always disagree with his reviews regarding any action or SF film.

    Meanwhile, this review annoyed me immediately. Complaining that it sticks to the source material is absurd since it had a great message. I do not want another “Rollerball” where some idiot guts all the meaning out of the story. Burroughs wrote a rich commentary on racism and the evil of religion, and we’re in an era that could use a reminder.

    I’m going to see the film soon, so I’ll judge for myself.

    • There is such a thing as hewing too close to your source material, so that the movie never comes alive as a movie. Exhibit A: The Golden Compass.

      I’ll catch a matinee of Carter.

  3. “Complaining that it sticks to the source material is absurd…”

    I didn’t say that. Indeed, what I said was, “John Carter shines when it sticks closely to its pulp roots.”

    • “John Carter often remains too reverent to the source material to be fully successful.”

      seems very similar to “Complaining that it sticks to the source material”
      and I note, it’s your opening sentence.

      Marvellous impression you give.
      Perhaps you don’t want anymore Science Fiction films made?

  4. TheAdlerian // March 9, 2012 at 9:23 pm //

    The story isn’t “pulp” and saying that makes me think you don’t know how to read or understand when you do. The JC series is an anti-racism and anti-religious allegory, not a dumb action porn, which is where the term pulp comes from. It’s a cheap meaningless story printed on “pulp” stock paper that will not last.

    Did you actually read the books?

    Just Got Back:

    NOW, this movie is pulp because all of the meaningful stuff about the religious “chosen people” and racial supremacy has been removed. So, the source material was gutted and only the “pulp” vacuous elements remain.

    That means the story is entirely ruined and has no value. Even entertainment value was missing because there’s no point in learning all the terms and titles in the film because they relate to nothing. If you have the racism and religion, then all the terms relate to the pointless positions and battles being fought. Instead we get a Batman Begins ripoff with an organization that likes to watch the world burn and it just means nothing.

  5. I just saw it and I thought it was fantastic.

  6. I was really curious to see how well Andrew Stanton pulled this one off. His Pixar work was great, after all, not just in terms of animation, but storytelling as well. Sadly, this review isn’t alone in its take on the film, which is a shame. Book adaptations are always tricky, but I think you can look at LOTR or any of the Potter films and see that it can be done well. Too bad. Burroughs was definitely an inspiration for my own book, but as far as this movie goes, I’ll wait for the video.

  7. D Armstrong // March 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm //

    We saw it this afternoon, and have a few thoughts.

    Firstly, great liberties were taken with the original story. However, it is a movie, and Disney, so that is to be expected. Besides, if Jackson can throw an elvish love-interest in LOTR and it still be good, then we should give the benefit of the doubt to other artistic liberties (more on this below.)

    Secondly, it’s family-safe. No nudity, no graphic violence, only mild cussing. That means that the critics, and the average over-stimulated movie-goer, won’t like it.

    With the forgoing in mind, then, there are in my opinion a number of good things about this movie:

    –The sense of alien is well done. Little touches like the Tharks struggling with the pronunciation of Carter’s name, the ‘learning to walk’ sequence, and the entire Art Nouveau-meets-Constantinople-meets-Delhi atmosphere.

    –Women are portrayed as being strong, intelligent, and worthwhile. (Which, in the context of Burroughs’ time period, is not far off from his vision.) And the male armor is just as silly as the female equipment.

    –Some of the storyline liberties actually did a better job of explaining things like, well, getting to Mars, than Burroughs did. If you must make changes, make them sensible.

    –Humor is used to good effect, but is balanced so as not to overwhelm the characters.

    Wooden acting? I’m sorry, but great acting doesn’t often come out of Hollywood. In fact, I think the last time I saw great acting in a movie it was Kenneth Branagh in Henry V (late 80s?) Star Wars was a great movie, and I love it dearly. But it was acted woodenly, too. There were a few outstanding directorial moments which made up for any acting shortfalls (the mid-movie battle/flashback sequence comes to mind.)

    I do agree that the prologue was unnecessary. But my wife and youngest daughter(neither of whom have read the books) disagree, saying it helped them understand what was going on.

    We found that the effects and overall vision of place made up for any shortfalls in writing and acting. All in all it is good fun, a decent adaptation, and well worth the admission. Sometimes a story is just fun, and in this the movie lives up to Burroughs’ rollicking adventure intentions.

    The end is set up for a sequel, which I would be happy to see. And if there isn’t a sequel, you can always read the books.

  8. Just watched this afternoon, and despite enjoying, I have two big complaints:

    – Way too long: the entire River Iss chapter was pretty pointless, could’ve been cut off. The battle was neat, but it didnt even advance the plot.

    – Motive: the story indeed lacks something to guide it. They travel all over Barsoom, and sometimes I’d just forget why the hell they where going in that direction at all.

    The kids probably gonna like it, but I’ll wait for the DVD. Not sitting another 2 hours in the theathers for this.

  9. I saw this with my son on opening night, & thought it was fantastic. I see that in some of the above comments, some people thought this would be a better movie if it included an agenda which includes ideas like ”religion is evil.” Well, that kind of thing would’ve ruined it for me, i went to see the movie as an escape, not to be submitted to propaganda. I’ve read the Barsoom books also, and thought the movie did great justice to them. I really hope a sequel will happen, but with all of these mediocre reviews out there, i don’t know.

  10. Spaceman1 // March 13, 2012 at 8:39 am //

    I knew that this site, which is impressed by every friggin’ lame “fanboy” piece of crap that comes down the pike, would not appreciate this film.

    JC is one of the best SF films ever made. I agree that the prologue was ill-advised, it definitely worried me, but the other 2 hours 10 minutes of the film completely won me over. Oh, and it in no way resembled the opening to “Dune”.

    We *finally* get a faithful adaptation of a classic SF novel that has emotion, epic scope, and visual brilliance, and of course, being what they are, the SF community stays away in droves. Yeah, save that ticket $$ for “Battleship” and “Avengers” guys! This review is a great example of why SF fandom is always shooting itself in the foot.

    See “John Carter” it is a near-perfect genre film, you will NOT be disappointed! It’s on par with “2001 : A Space Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz”, forget about “Avatar”!

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