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Friday Film Review: John Carter

John Carter (2012)

Genre: SF Action/Adventure

Grade: C-

I’m coming at this movie from the standpoint of someone who’s never read any of the books on which it’s based nor even read much about the books on which it’s based. I was a John Carter/Barsoom virgin and I don’t think that was a good thing. This is a review that’s going to be a lot of me asking you for advice and clarity on it.

The story opens in 1881 with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ducking and dodging someone through the rainy streets of NYC. Reaching a telegram office, Carter sends an urgent request to his nephew to come to his estate. When Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arrives a few days later, he’s met with the news that his uncle died suddenly the night after sending the telegram. In his will, Carter has left care of the estate to his nephew for a period of years after which it will fully transfer to Edgar – or Ned as Carter always called him. The lawyer (Nicholas Woodeson – if he looks familiar, he was in “Rome”) instructs Edgar on one final request of his uncle’s – that Ned read the journal his uncle kept for years.

Ned begins to read and is taken back to the Civil War – or is it just after? I can’t recall – anyway, Carter is out west searching for gold and thinks he’s almost tracked down some mysterious cave which a Yavapai Indian told him about. When he arrives at a trader’s store, US Army cavalry men kidnap him and take him to their Colonel (Bryan Cranston) who attempts to persuade Carter to sign up. Carter responds by almost escaping twice before finally doing so – by stealing the Colonel’s horse. Hot on his trail, they track Carter down right before being confronted by a band of Apaches. Carter and the Colonel head for some caves and it’s then that Carter realizes 1) this is the cave of gold and 2) there’s a strange man in it who attacks him. Carter shoots the man and picks up a fantastic medallion the man was holding just as the man utters a foreign phrase. The next thing Carter knows, he’s somewhere else and suddenly can leap high in the air as if he has little gravitational pull.

Meanwhile, a 1000 year old battle is raging between two different groups of people and we learn that Zodanga is attempting to subdue the other, taking over their city of Helium. (Someone tell me I’m not the only one who was waiting for these people to speak like chipmunks) When the Zodangan leader (Dominic West) is given a kickass weapon by some bald guy named Shang (Mark Strong), the Zodangans gain the upper hand. The Helium leader (Ciaran Hinds) tells his beautiful, intelligent daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) that in order to save her people, she marry the leader of the rampaging bastards. Dejah is understandably pissed off but with no other choice, she – supposedly – gives in.

Meanwhile, Carter is still bounding all over the place until he discovers some kind of hatchery and sees eggs busting open to reveal multi-armed little blue/green offspring. He pulls back in astonishment and says something like, “Where the hell am I?!” He’s not the only one wondering.

Shortly afterwards, a group of cavalry ride up and Carter is shocked (again) to realize that these are beings he’s never seen before – each with four arms, side face tusks and colored a lima bean green. They’re amazed at his jumping ability but manage to take him prisoner and head back to the home place. Chained up there, he’s fed something by Sola, a young female Thark, that acts as a language converter allowing them all to understand each other. Good thing as the English translation of their language was so small on screen that I was getting a headache reading it. Carter escapes – it’s his specialty – but picks up a devoted dog like creature called Woola. I adored Woola. Woola can zip around faster than greased lightning and busts into a gathering of Tharks who start to beat him off – which seriously pissed me off! – causing Carter to rush to his rescue.

Shortly after that, two amazing flying machines engaged in battle zoom over Thark City – as I called it. Carter notices someone hanging below one of them and jumps up to catch him/her before he/she falls. When they reach the ground, he discovers she’s a beautiful young woman (one guess as to who she is). Her arrival signals a Thark political/religious power play – or something – and Carter, Dejah and Sola all flee into the wilderness searching for a sacred river in the hope of learning how Carter can return to Earth. They find it – but only after Carter and Sola learn just who Dejah truly is. Carter and Dejah (I kept wanting to call her Deja vue) venture somewhere and kinda discover something of a religious nature that also confirms Dejah’s discovery of some powerful ray thingie. Then they leave because of some disturbance and all of them get attacked by some other group of not-quite-Tharks called Wharhoons (I think).

Carter does the hero thing and sends Sola and Dejah to safety before channelling his inner rage at the death of his wife during the Civil War. The inner rage lets him open a can of whoopass on the Wharhoons. Carter gets captured – again (but only so he an escape – again) and learns that Dejah has agreed to marry the Zodangan dude. Shang monologues to Carter about who and what he is, oh and Dejah must die, before Carter escapes and heads back to the Tharks for help. He reaches the Tharks only to find the leader has been overthrown and both of them plus Sola must fight in the arena against some huge, ugly creatures. Of course Carter wins and the whole group then heads off to save Dejah.

Major fight, Dejah’s saved and the evil Zodangans get theirs, then it’s wedding time for Carter and Dejah before – oopsie – he does something stupid and gets sent back to Earth by Shang – why? dunno. Anywho, now Carter has to try and find a way back to Barsoom (Mars). But he’s smart and eventually manages. Happy days are here again and The End.

As I said, I knew next to nothing about these books or what to expect from the movie. Several times within the first 30 minutes of movie after Carter got to Mars I (literally) said out loud, “What the hell is going on here??” Also “Who are these people??” As well as “Wait a minute! Now who are those people?” Followed by “How does this all tie in together??” I was one confused camper and none too happy about it. Not dragging a film to a halt with back story and monologuing is one thing but feeling totally “arse over teakettle” trying to play plot catch up is not a good thing for me. From what I read in reviews afterwards, I wasn’t alone and even those in-the-know about the plots of the books were grumpy because the film makers had smushed parts of several of the books into one screenplay.

Taylor Kitsch cleans up nicely and is pretty to look at but he just never got Carter off the ground for me – sorry, pun intended. Lynn Collins is also pretty to look at and thankfully gets to kick a little ass as the Princess rather than always being saved. A lot of rest of the cast is almost like a “Rome” reunion with a little “Centurion” thrown in. I kept expecting Hinds and James Purefoy (he’s some Helium dude) to refer to each other as Caesar and Mark Antony. Poor Dominic West doesn’t get to do much except pout that he can’t unleash his kickass weapon more. Mark Strong plays his usual villain self while I had no idea who were the actors behind the Tharks until checking IMDB.

I have to confess to hitting the FF button a lot during the first pass. Then I discovered that there’s a fairly decent commentary track to go along with the film and I started it over with that playing to see if it would help me make sense of everything. The commentary is a lot more fun to listen to than the movie is to watch. It’s obvious that the director – “I want chickens!” – and his minions were devoted to capturing their joy from the books on screen. I just wish the whole thing had seemed less like a mess and a head scratcher. A $250 mill budget is a fun thing to play around with and the film is spectacular to look at but that still doesn’t make it something understandable or that I’d watch it again.

So, please tell me what your thoughts are on the film. Did you see it like I did – with no background to help you make sense of it? Or were you panting at the door of the movie theater on opening night because you’d waited all your life for this series to be made into a movie? Were the CGI effects enough or too much? And did you wonder how these classically trained British actors managed to keep straight faces while saying “Zodanga?” C- and that’s mainly for Woola.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

29 Comments

  1. Shannon Stacey
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 07:24:27

    We saw this at the theater and my entire family enjoyed it so much we bought it on Blu-ray when it released. I found it even more enjoyable the second time because I didn’t have to worry about the little dog-like dude. (And we’re a mid-fifties dad and a forty-year-old mom who remember the books but not necessarily in detail, a teenager who’s heard of the books but not read them, and an 11 year old who’d never heard of them and didn’t know what the movie was about because they sabotaged it with the worst trailers ever.)

    Obviously we need to watch it again with the commentary on!

  2. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 07:45:18

    @Shannon Stacey: The commentary track is great. It’s informative and funny and it sounds like this was truly a labor of love for those involved behind the scenes. They also make the actors sound as if they were psyched to do their best as well.

  3. DM
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 07:59:30

    I saw it in the theater with a mixed group of family and friends (ages 13 to 70) and we all really enjoyed it. Some of us knew the books, others didn’t, but we all thought it was terrific. The negative hype surrounding the film was mostly engineered by Disney execs looking for a way to distinguish themselves from the prior regime that greenlit it, and write off some losses, which is a shame, because this is a solid film and an entertaining two hours. We also bought the DVD!

  4. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 08:46:19

    @DM: Disney certainly didn’t seem to do much to promote it and given the budget, I would have thought they’d be practically shoving it down peoples’ throats.

  5. Meoskop
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 08:47:13

    The kids in our group were with you, while the adults thought it was the best action film we’d seen in a long time. Only one of us was familiar with the original series. The underlying theme that John Carter is a man sick of war in worlds that continually insist on waging them came through strongly. I was drawn as well to the strong female lead and to the repudiation of a society where only the most ruthless survive.

  6. LG
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 08:56:13

    I haven’t seen this, but I DID read A Princess of Mars…and didn’t really like it. I preferred Sola to Dejah Thoris, and I also had some other issues with the book. I haven’t read anything else in the series and don’t know if I ever will. I’m occasionally tempted to see this movie, though, just to see how it compares.

  7. tripoli
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 10:31:23

    I liked this movie a lot more than I thought it would. Maybe it wasn’t the best ever, but it was entertaining, I liked the actors and thought they did a good job, and I think it’s too bad it wasn’t better received by the critics. I recommended it to a few friends, and they all liked it too.

  8. Erin Satie
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 10:39:32

    I watched this a couple of weeks ago & hated it. So much happens and I didn’t care about any of it.

  9. hapax
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 11:51:13

    I was familiar with the books but hadn’t read them for years (just remembered a mad crush on Dejah Thoris).

    I watched the movie on Blu-Ray, and had no trouble following the plot. I thought that the filmography was very pretty, but I confess I fell asleep about an hour into it.

  10. Jenna
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 12:52:13

    I just loved how the “red people” were white people with spray tans. Because there are no good Native American or Indian actors.

  11. carmen webster buxton
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 14:38:15

    I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books when I was much, much younger, and I enjoyed them but did have problems with some things in the stories. I remember thinking Burroughs probably didn’t like kids because Barsoomian races not only hatch their young from eggs, the hatchlings are “born” almost grown. I was wondering whether I would enjoy the movie (which I haven’t seen) but it sounds to me like they spent too much time on the set-up and still didn’t get enough info into it. I also thought it was implausible that Barsoomians had many spoken languages but only one written language. I didn’t know then that Chinese is like that; Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can use the the same written language because it’s in no way phonetic. I will say that most of my science fiction/geeky friends loved this movie.

  12. Shari
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 15:19:49

    I grew up reading the Barsoom series and had been looking forward to this movie for about 30 years. I loved the movie, as did my husband (who never read the books) and our kids (will be reading the book later). Our kids couldn’t wait to see it again, matter of fact, the first word out of our 7 yo son’s mouth was an excited “Again!” We actually paid to see it twice, when we rarely go to movies at all that isn’t a bargain dollar theater for the kids during the summer. I even pre-ordered the DVD, and we haven’t bought many DVDs since getting Netflix, and even then, we usually hit the used DVDs.

    While the movie varies from the book in many places, it stays true to the spirit of the book. I wish Disney would have done a better job of marketing it. I almost missed it, thinking it was still opening that June, instead of the spring.

    Part of what people don’t realize is that the style of the book is just a grand adventure, it’s not meant to be anything fancy or serious. Just fun. It was also Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first attempt at writing. I’m looking forward to re-reading the series, and hopefully see someone make the rest of the movies, if Disney won’t.

  13. Darlynne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 17:18:22

    Or something. Enormous points to you, Jayne, for recounting so much of the movie because I certainly can’t. I think I enjoyed it, but gave up trying to figure it out. It wasn’t horrible, just not memorable.

  14. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 18:19:23

    @Darlynne: Eventually I did give up trying to understand it the first time through – and then it got more fun. The second time through – with the commentary track on – it made more sense but I’m not sure if that’s because I knew what was coming or if I understood it more.

  15. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 18:22:00

    @tripoli: Yeah, I think entertaining is what they were going for here. @Shari: Or true to the spirit of the book. Either one.

  16. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 19:04:53

    @LG: I like Sola better too but I also like that Dejah is a stronger character than I was expecting her to be and also wasn’t made to wear the skimpy clothes I would have thought she’d be stuck in.

  17. Jayne
    Nov 09, 2012 @ 19:06:55

    @Erin Satie: LOL, yep I felt your pain.

  18. Ranben
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 03:30:22

    The beauty of the film for me IS the complexity. I had to see it several times to catch everything that is going on. It is packed with detail. I recommend that anyone who only saw it once and did not quite follow what is going on, see it again or even several times. It get better each time you see it. It is a film that is meant to be fun, like the swashbucklers of old. But it is much more too. Some day I think it will get the respect that it is due.

  19. Marumae
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 10:48:53

    Kind of in the same boat you are, while I’d heard of the books (and never read them, I believe my mom, a hard core bibliophile and a former scifi/fantasy fan whose love spans decades did) I never read them and to be honest, the campaign from this was so minimal I actually *forgot* the movie was coming out until it was pulled from theaters. Finally renting it and sitting down to watch it, I did enjoy myself for what was presented as a fun old fashioned scifi movie, as well as the special effects being AMAZING and Barsoom being gorgeous to look at….but for all that I had fun watching it, when I really get down to how to grade the movie, I’d give it a C+. It was fun, but hardly the best movie ever made.

    To be honest, I think this story/movie would have worked well as one of those Saturday morning SciFi series. Along the likes of The Seeker, Xena and Hercules, The Lost World etc…given time to develop the cast of characters and set up the world and the danger, I think it would have won my heart more fully.

  20. Fiona McGier
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 16:34:04

    My husband and young adult kids (all of us are sci-fi geeks) saw it at the theater and husband loved it, kids not so much. We rented it when the video came out and I liked it. I read all of the books when I was a kid, but didn’t remember much of the plots. So I was just entertained.

    My husband thinks that Disney made a terrible choice in the title and their lack of a marketing program. Like he said, what is Disney known for? Princesses, right? And the original title of the books was “Princess of Mars”. Duh! Market it as a strong female leader whoops ass and you’d have a built-in audience! Especially since she didn’t have to run around in a thong and bikini top to be powerful!

    As to whether or not it will be judged more kindly in the future, we own Cutthroat Island starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine. It’s one of our favorite movies, but also got no respect from the audiences. It’s a great swash-buckler in the style of the old Errol Flynn movies. But make the lead a woman and suddenly people said it was crap. We also own Titan AE, which would have been more popular if it wasn’t a cartoon, and Idiocracy, which had its own studio trying to bury it so as to not get the audiences upset that the movie is calling them stupid. Which it is. To each their own, I guess.

  21. Jayne
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 18:15:37

    @Marumae: Hmmm, you might be on to something with the TV series idea. Cut some – okay, alot – of the special effects and take more time with it and people probably would have found it and loved it. As it was, I hardly remember reading anything about it when it was in the theaters.

  22. Jayne
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 18:21:08

    @Fiona McGier: The title is awful. There’s nothing to draw you into it if you know nothing about the books or characters. The director said it was a deliberate choice not to use “John Carter of Mars” because they wanted to show how he moved away from Earth and towards Mars. I think “Princess of Mars” would be even better. Tie into the books, (as you say) tie into Disney’s usual image, grab the attention of the random movie goer to discover what this movie is all about and voila.

    I’ve actually been debating watching Cutthroat Island just to see what it’s all about. After your plug I think I’ll take the plunge.

  23. Jayne
    Nov 10, 2012 @ 18:22:15

    @Ranben: Do you think there will ever be movie or TV sequels made?

  24. Jael
    Nov 11, 2012 @ 23:05:03

    I had never read the books, but I had seen the uber-campy Princess of Mars with Antonio Sabato and Tracy Lords. That was fun for a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it was also very forgettable.

    Conversely, I *loved* John Carter!! It was a much better telling of the story, and I really wish follow-up movies or a tv series would be made to tell the rest.

  25. Angelia Sparrow
    Nov 12, 2012 @ 08:51:37

    I found out about the movie when I was IMDBing Taylor Kitsch. I squeed.

    My dad took me and the kids to see Cowboys and Aliens. There was a trailer for it. My kids stared. They had never seen me squee like that. I may have started my youngest.

    So, we went to see it opening weekend. I had waited 35 years for this movie and wasn’t waiting a minute more.

    My kids enjoyed it, and followed the plot. I enjoyed it and didn’t even mentally tear it apart until after the lights came up. (a rarity) It had a lot of flaws, and based on what they put into this movie, they will have to jump straight to the 4th or 5th book, since the conflicts in 2 and 3 are with the Therns (who were RADICALLY altered for this film) Some of it was a hot mess. You had to pay VERY close attention, because every bit of dialogue was important.

    I saw it again at the drive-in with a friend who had no knowledge of the books, and she enjoyed, and on DVD with my sister, who had only read the short lived Marvel comic series.

    I really loved that Dejah was not simply an object to be kidnapped and retrieved, as she mostly is in the books, but rather a scientist and warrior in her own right. I loved, loved, loved Sola. And Willem Dafoe was amazing as Tars Tarkas.

    And Woola. There’s brief flash in one of the Thark’s binoculars of a flyer with Carter at the controls, Sola aboard and Woola on the helm, his tongue flapping, grinning a big doggie grin. That bit just made the movie for me.

    And it’s nice to know that after all these years, I’m still in love with Kantos Kan.

  26. Jayne
    Nov 12, 2012 @ 19:03:10

    @Angelia Sparrow: Okay, so I totally missed that brief shot of Woola in the flyer. Might have to rerent the DVD just for that!

  27. Little Red
    Nov 13, 2012 @ 16:47:11

    I haven’t read any of the Rice novels when I went to see it in the theater this spring. I enjoyed the movie but I didn’t love it. I doubt they will do any follow-ups since it did so poorly at the US box-office. But perhaps it did well in foreign markets?

  28. Angie
    Nov 26, 2012 @ 10:20:41

    I read the first six or eight books thirty-some years ago, before wandering away from the series. It’s very much a product of its time, which was back when the word “helium” was sufficiently exotic and alien to make a cool Martian city name. [wry smile] It’s like calling a red wagon a “Radio Flyer” — it’s a stupid name for a little red wagon, but radio was new and gosh-wow ultra-modern at the time, so kids were into it. [shrug]

    Part of the problem with the movie, and particularly its marketing, was that the director was 1) given a final say on the trailers, and 2) was a raving fanboy of the book series and assumed that John Carter was a household name, the way Tarzan is. He said in an interview that he just assumed he could name the movie “John Carter” and everyone in America would instantly know what that meant, and would be primed to be excited about it, something that would’ve been an iffy proposition even with Tarzan. As it was, most people were all, “Huh?” and many of those who did recognize the name wondered why they were making a movie about Dr. John Carter from the old ER series on TV. :P

    If the movie was confusing to a lot of the people who hadn’t read the books, that’s probably why — the director assumed you all were familiar with the character and Burroughs’s Mars already. And the trailers were deliberately designed to be more teasers about a cool popular thing than introductions to something new and unknown. An article I read said that the marketing department was collectively bashing their heads against walls every step of the way, because they knew this was a bad way to introduce the movie to the modern public, but they couldn’t get that through to the director. Which was unfortunate, because it’s a cool world with some really neat characters.

    Re: how Dejah Thoris was dressed, in the books the Martians wear only jewelry and are essentially naked. The climate, according to Burroughs, didn’t require actual coverings until you got to the poles (IIRC) so readers are free to imagine the Martians (plus JC) running around basically naked. The presumed market for these adventure stories in Burroughs’s day was young men, so… well, there you go. :)

    Angie

  29. Jayne
    Nov 26, 2012 @ 18:59:45

    @Angie: Well, that explains a lot and illustrates the saying – “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.”

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