5-Word 365 #296 – John Carter

Without Joss Whedon and his chums at Marvel, Disney would be hurting pretty bad in the bank accounts this year, thanks to the unexpected failure of today’s film. Is it as bad as their massive financial loss might have you believe? I say nay. It could have been better though.

John Carter

Solid, but not without flaws.

Three years after the end of the war, former Confederate cavalryman Captain John Carter is approached by Colonel Powell of the Union to assist in his skirmishes against the Apache throughout the Arizona Territory. A reluctant Carter escapes and, chased by Powell’s men, hides in a cave where he is mysteriously transported to another world. Meeting all sorts of strange creatures, he is told he is on the planet Barsoom, and becomes embroiled in another Civil War; this one between the cities of Helium and Zodanga. It turns out that what the locals call Barsoom, John knows by another name: Mars.

John Carter (referred to during production by the more interesting name John Carter of Mars) is based on the first book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars. The book was published in 1917, but the chapters had been serialised in The All-Story magazine five years earlier, meaning that the film was released just weeks after the 100th anniversary of the character’s first appearance. In that time the Barsoom series has become one of the most influential works in science fiction history. The number of films, books and games that can be traced back to these stories is beyond measure. Unfortunately, making the film adaptation at this point means that the story is seen by those unfamiliar with the books as more derivative than influential.

The film is Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut, following his success with Finding Nemo and Wall-E while at Pixar. He adapted the screenplay with Mark Andrews, with a re-write by novelist Michael Chabon. For me, it is this screenplay that is one of the flick’s main problems. There is just too much, too soon. While John is the title character, the film actually plays out as two parallel stories – Mr C’s travails intercut with Sab Than of Zodanga trying to take over Helium – which come together only in the last act. The film opens with a big old chunk of Barsoom backstory, accompanied by an infuriatingly confusing narration. It was only as the movie went on that I gradually caught up with the details. I felt a bit dumb for most of the first hour; a feeling that films like this are really not supposed to engender.

I get why he’d feel like staying.

Once it gets going, there is some fun to be had here. The cast are fully committed to the outlandish concept, and Stanton marshalls some decent performances, particularly from Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas (despite being Serkised into a 10-feet tall green dude with four arms) and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Dominic West hams it up with the best of them as Sab Than, although I kept expecting John Doman to appear and call him a gaping asshole. Maybe I’ve just been watching The Wire too much. Taylor Kitsch seems miscast as John though. When he is beardy it looks stuck on, and when he is clean-shaven he looks about 20. I just don’t buy him as an experienced Army officer; he looks more like a high school football player. My shameless scene-stealer award is split between James Purefoy on Mars and Bryan Cranston on Earth, both of whom deserved to have much bigger roles.

I can’t say enough good things about the visuals. The landscapes are gorgeous (including a brief cameo by the Vasquez Rocks) and the animation work is excellent, although considering the film’s $250 million budget I would have expected nothing less. The N’Avi Tharks in particular are very well realised – both emotive and individual – and John’s “dog” Woola transcends the inevitable Assy McGee comparisons.

Tell me I’m wrong.

Ultimately the film is just too much like everything else to really resonate. The irony is overwhelming, isn’t it? John Carter is a decent enough way to pass a couple of hours with the family. Although it might be a bit unwieldy at times, there is always another fight or chase or rousing speech just around the corner. And if the flick manages to make some people crack a book too, so much the better.


  1. CMrok93 · October 23, 2012

    Good review Ryan. I don’t really think it was all that bad of a movie really. Yeah, it had some pacing issues and definitely wasn’t an original piece of sci-fi, but still had a lot of fun with it’s look and self, and that’s all that mattered to me. I just wish Kitsch wasn’t so damn dull in everything the guy seems to do nowadays.

    • Ryan McNeely · October 24, 2012

      Exactly. I haven’t seen him in Battleship yet. What did you think of that one?

  2. mistylayne · October 25, 2012

    I think I borrowed this book from some one and it’s sitting in my pile. I know I wanted to read it but not watch the movie because I’d heard horrible things. But then I started hearing that it really wasn’t half bad and really it was that they marketed it wrong and now I want to see it.

    • Ryan McNeely · October 25, 2012

      Give it a go. The flick took a pounding, but I think a lot of that was people jumping on the bandwagon

  3. Morgan R. Lewis · October 25, 2012

    I got a big kick out of this movie when I saw it, but I’ve always enjoyed old pulp science fiction — which among other things meant I wasn’t concerned about the “originality” of it, since I was aware of just how many movies were influenced by Burroughs’ work. It does have some flaws, though, and I think you’re right about Kitsch being a big part of that. Still, I think the biggest problem this movie faced was its amazingly bad marketing job.

    • Ryan McNeely · October 26, 2012

      Right on, dude. Disney really screwed the pooch with the release of this flick.

  4. theipc · October 26, 2012

    I didn’t see this and I probably won’t but I was a HUGE fan of the comics back in the day…

    • Ryan McNeely · October 26, 2012

      I was never much of a comics guy. I’ve no idea how the movie matches them (if at all!)

  5. May-Elle · July 14, 2013

    As a girl who loved fairy tales as a kid, and who never really outgrew them, I’d say I was well satisfied by this film. It’s got all the right elements for a good old fashioned adventure in it. In fact, I’d say that the movie manages to even avoid some cliches by being so straight forward in it’s story. These days the trend seems to be that the main character must have all sorts of inner demons and misgivings to overcome, and usually also be beaten within an inch of his life before he can triumph. John Carter was a breath of fresh air in the sense that he was honest to goodness hero, someone who has the drive to protect others right from the get go, without needing three hours of angst to get him to realize it.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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