Reviews in the Nick of Time: John Carter of M***

by wjw on March 20, 2012

Honestly, I have no idea why this movie didn’t do better at the box office.  It’s not perfect, but in the category of action SF movies that make no sense, this one is head and shoulders above the rest.

And it’s got a reason why it doesn’t make any sense.  The book it was based on was written a hundred years ago, when folks didn’t know shit about Mars or space travel or science or anything.  Back in the Nineteen-oughts, people probably thought it was a perfectly sensible thing to carry a sword into an airship combat.  Because you just never knew, did you?

(By contrast, the Transformers films are action SF that don’t make any sense, except they’re written now.  When we should know better.)

Also, Burroughs wrote before Americans had heard of Freud.  Heroes were heroes because, well, they were heroic, and they were honorable because, well, they were heroes.  Villains were villains because they were evil.  No more explanation required.

I should be honest and say up front that I’ve never read A Princess of Mars.  I read Heinlein before I read any of Burroughs’ planetary romances, so I found them quaint and disappointing when I got to them.  (Tarzan, on the other hand, I ate up with a spoon.)

But from the few 0f the Mars books that I read, I have to say that the movie gets Barsoom right in all its colorful, violent, incoherent splendor. It’s a great tribute to the source material.

There are no less than three framing stories, which makes the whole package a little unwieldy and overlong— but each story is done very well, and by the end they all interconnect, so I didn’t lose too much patience, except for the scenes with Carter and his interactions with the U.S. Cavalry, which were completely unnecessary, albeit— once again— well done.  (If they were meant to show Carter’s cynicism, there exist other, less time-consuming ways to do that.)

What surprised me about the film is that, despite the chases and complex plot and the swordplay, it ended up being about family— in fact, it became somewhat of an old-fashioned Victorian family saga.  John Carter’s lost his family in the Civil War, and on Mars he finds a family again.  Some of them are green-skinned and four-armed, but what the hell, they’re a family worth fighting for.  Characters like Tars Tarkas have hidden family connections that are revealed in the course of the film, and which affect the course of the narrative.

Not bad when you consider most of the characters are oviparous.

The villains, by the way, have no families.  They just have followers.  Lots of them.

Taylor Kitsch is a perfectly fine John Carter.  He’s not brilliant in the role, but he gets the job done, and he’s supported by a fine cast, including Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Dominic West, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Ciarán Hinds, a startlingly blue-eyed Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, and Jon Favreau as “Thark bookie.”  (Surely one of the best credits ever.)

I saw it in 3D, so of course it gave me a headache.  And the polarized 3D spectacles made the image dark, and the indoor scenes very murky— I kept having to take off the 3D specs just to see things.

So see it in old-fashioned 2D.  You won’t miss much, and you’ll be able to actually follow the action.

John Carter of M***.  An old-fashioned Victorian family saga with swordplay, aerial combat, and green-skinned hordes.  Since it’s set on M***, I won’t give it three stars, but three moons.  Deimos, Phobos, and Jon Favreau.

Dave Bishop March 20, 2012 at 10:27 am

I’ve not seen this film yet – but I’m looking forward to it. It’s had uniformly bad reviews, here in th UK, but I suspect that reviewers are missing the point.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was my Dad’s (1913 -2004) favourite author – and he loved the Mars books most of all. He introduced me to them and I’ve still got his collection (mouldering old, cheap, British hardback editions – some of which I think he probably inherited from his father).

I’ve only seen brief clips of the film, so far – but it looks great! It’s a pity my Dad’s not still here to see his favourite book brought to life on the screen.

Nathan March 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm

I also liked the movie a lot. The most silly space fun to be had probably at least since Abrams’ Star Trek a couple years ago. I’ll never understand the vagaries of audience loyalty and fickleness that lead garbage like the 3rd Transformers or the 4th Pirates or even just pretty but lower-middling fantasies like Avatar or Burton’s Alice to make a billion dollars but leave a fun and not-too-insulting adventure like John Carter a giant flop.

re: 3D — I always take a look at this simple site — — before seeing a movie released in 3D. If it was shot in 3D, I’ll see it in 3D. If it was shot in 2D and converted to 3D later, I will not see it in 3D. Saved myself a lot of headaches and a few dollars that way.

Ralf The Dog. March 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I was a bit disappointed in watching the film, however, some of that disappointment may have been from the fact that I got stuck watching it at the Imax theater (I had friends who did not want to spend extra).

I think the reason for the U.S. Cavalry bit was to define better where he was from. You want to establish the fact that he is from the post civil war South, however, his home in (I think it was Virginia) was a bit too civilized. The bit with his Native American interaction lets the viewer know that even if he was from the South, he was open minded and not a raciest.

DensityDuck March 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Everybody knows what the Transformers are.

The only thing that most people know about Mars is that it’s some nerdy NASA thing for dorks.

They should have called the movie “WARLORD” or “CHAMPION” or something like that.

Foxessa March 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Why it failed, in the Vulture — the big space spectacles have already been there and done that via plundering the Barsoom ouvre already:

The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer By Claude Brodesser-Akner

Love, C.

TCWriter March 20, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I liked it in the “it was fun” sense, though as someone who read the books as a kid and even recently, I do think they could have lightened the storytelling load a bit.

I also thought the characters were often a little *too* earnest; the few moments of Indiana Jones levity were too light and too few to really buoy the movie, which could have used a little… humanity.

That said, the marketing for the movie was atrocious (leading to a rarely seen public flogging of Director Stanton by the Disney marketing department), and most of the press around the movie has been about the cost or the marketing issues, not the production itself — the equivalent of a political process story vs a policy story (the former don’t get us very far).

Finally, I think there was a certain undercurrent of retribution awaiting this film; Andrew Stanton directed it — his first live-action movie after scoring so heavily in Finding Nemo and Wall-E.

Custom dictated he was supposed to be humble about the switch, but instead he went on record (in a New Yorker interview) suggesting he knew how to do live action better than the live action guys, and while Hollywood isn’t exactly estranged from the concept of arrogance, the industry does tend to enjoy sticking it to the unhumble.

I’d love to see a sequel, but after a record loss and some ungentle treatment, probably not…

p.s. — Lynn Collins made me want to grab my sword. There. I said it.

MikeR March 21, 2012 at 6:39 pm

The problem is, younger people have no idea who John Carter is. My teenage kids have never even heard of him. That is contrasted with Stanton’s apparent belief that this was “the most important sci-fi movie ever made”, which is just silly. What value is there in being faithful to the books that no one has read at the expense of clear and engaging plot?

wjw March 22, 2012 at 4:44 am

I’m inclined to believe the movie failed because nobody under 40 is familiar with the source material. The marketing could have turned that around, but didn’t.

The fact that so many other films have plundered the source material shouldn’t have mattered. So movie audiences have seen a lot of it before . . . when has that ever harmed a big movie?

mearsk March 22, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I am under 40 and enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t great, but it was entertaining and parts of it were quite good. The flashback scene where Carter is trying to stop the Thark horde was great.

DensityDuck March 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I submit that if WALL-E and Finding Nemo (and Up, for that matter) hadn’t had Pixar’s name on them, then they wouldn’t have done as well.

Imagine that the exact same film had been done by Dreamworks. Do you feel differently about it? Do you think that WALL-E was better than Kung Fu Panda or How To Train Your Dragon?

Nathan March 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm


Yes and no. I think Finding Nemo and Up were better than HTTYD, which was very overrated (despite its wonderful musical score), but still better than the even more overrated WALL·E. Kung Fu Panda was good fun, but almost inverse thematically to The Incredibles. A dozen years or so ago I remember preferring Antz to A Bug’s Life, but haven’t seen either in so long I don’t know whether I’d still feel that way.

But even Pixar’s weakest (Cars, WALL·E), are at least more memorable than DWA’s (Shark Tale, Bee Movie).

Which is all to say, I think Pixar has overall earned its credibility by maintaining high standards; DWA has some quality pictures that, even so, are at their best comparable with the upper-mid-range of Pixar’s work, but has a much more mixed record overall.

Jerry March 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Dear Mr. Williams,
I’ve got my own crackpot theory as to why this film is not doing well at the box office. For me at least, it was the trailer I saw at the movie theater. It made it seem dumb, all special effects and comic-book stoopidness (spelling intentional) — aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s amazing at all the ways there are to go wrong, isn’t it – and I guess I don’t mean just in the movies. Anyway, thanks for the heads-up. Now I’m all pumped to invest the better part of an afternoon: if WJW liked it, I expect I’ll like it, too.

Ralf The Dog. March 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm

The trailer made me think of, Mars Needs Moms.

Jerry March 25, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Thanks, WJW, for the nice things you said about this movie – I would not have seen it otherwise. Nathan, above, pointed out the almost random tastes of the public. Beyond human understanding. Some lousy restaurants, for example, stay open year after year. Other, totally decent places flop quickly. Why? I don’t get it. Back to the movie, though — I LOVED IT! Yee-hooo! I cared about the good characters, despised the bad ones, forgot where I was for a while, and felt great coming out of the theater. The movie worked SO well. It worked perhaps not on many different levels, but certainly in many different ways. It wasn’t metaphor, it wasn’t profound, it wasn’t revelatory, but it had no pretense in those directions — it was terrific for what it was! Thanks again for the tip, Mr. Williams!

wjw March 26, 2012 at 6:16 am

Jerry, I’m glad you liked the movie. In fact, you seem to have liked it more than I did.

I don’t mind Big Dumb Fun, particularly when it has no pretensions to be anything else.

That One Guy March 26, 2012 at 6:17 pm

WJW, while I agree with your argument that century-old source material should be granted a very different approach to evaluation, this film did have one glaring internal problem that forced me to shout at the screen over and over, much to the irritation of the three other people in the theater (two of whom I brought).

In short, no one ever considers riding the lightspeed frog/dog. Stay with me: they are on a tight schedule, slowly crossing the desert, and they have a timewarping hound the size of a pony with them . . . and they don’t ride it? Oh, but there are two of them, you say, and but one toadhound. Well, to this I say . . . two trips? Considering that the animal breaks the laws of physics, I can’t imagine this adding more than a few seconds.

There are numerous internal consistency problems I could have attacked, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by the time the novel was written . . . well, except for the little talisman. I should point out that if the body Carter inhabits on Mars is a replica, then the talisman must also be a replica, unless it was transported to Mars when he was replicated. If so, this kind of renders moot the need to actually replicate a body . . . but, hey, this didn’t really bother me.

The dog, though. God. I deem this film unwatchable based on the lack of saddle-clad dogs.

DensityDuck March 26, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Saw it; liked it; wouldn’t be upset if there weren’t any sequels. I made a point of going to the non-3D matinee two weeks after release, and I feel that I got exactly my money’s worth.

The bits with Tars Tarkas and John Carter were definitely channeling “Dances With Wolves”.

DensityDuck March 28, 2012 at 3:41 am

I will say that I’m greatly enjoying reading “Gods of Mars”.

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