Mild Spoiler Warnings:
An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.
I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Although certain aspects are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.
I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.
But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.
I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.
One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.
The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.
Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).
Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.
But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.
It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.
(Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)
In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.
I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.
Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.
One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.
Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.
Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.
IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.
Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.
Do people really think that Hermione is literally brought back to life in Act V? Reading it, it was obvious to me that Hermione had been alive, living in secret. Paulina keeps the statue in secret and visited it twice a day; she discourages Leontes from touching it; the statue is of an aged Hermione. I knew what it was a ruse (in fact, I suspected it from her off-screen death in Act III). But apparently, there is some controversy over this point.
(Of course, Mamillius remains dead. In that respect, the Winter’s Tale reminds me of the biblical story of Job. All ends in happiness when Job gets a new family. But I often wondered about his first family, whose destruction and death seems little more than a plot point in the story of Job’s life. The death of Mamillius is swept under the carpet, a side note to the redemption of Leontes.)
The Winter’s Tale is another problem play, possibly better defined as a romance. It does seem a bit schizophrenic at times, with Leontes delivering biting lines in Act I and an epic peak of tragedy in Act III. But Acts IV and V proceed to dance on the edge of tragedy while turning to comedy with the minor characters and a love story between the two major ones. This contrast is embodied by Autolycus, whose singing and joking create a very different mood, often in the midst of high drama and touching love-play.
One nettlesome aspect is that the finale and all the big revelations and plot twists happen off stage. I really am confused as to why Shakespeare did this so often — e.g., moving the funniest parts of Taming of the Shrew offstage. Perhaps this is a performance vs. reading thing?
One of the constant themes that comes up in Shakespeare is the contrast between the nobility and the commoners. It is the nobility who become so obsessed with honor and status that they drive people to despair, suicide and ruin. It is their petty squabbles and jealousies which drive the plays’ conflicts. And it is the commoners who, more often than not, save the day with common sense. The Winter’s Tale embodies this well. Leontes is one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve encountered in a comedy — vindictive, jealous, arrogant and unheeding. Polixnes throw away whatever good will we might have born him by flying into a vindictive rage over his son’s marriage plans and almost brings about a second tragedy. You can contrast that against the simple shepherd who saves Perdita, matches her with the Florizel and brings about the final resolution.
Up Next: I’ll go ahead and throw in Pericles even though Shakespeare only wrote half of it.
Amy Alkon breaks down the study that claims the TSA nudie scanners are safe. In short: they basically took TSA’s nominal figure for the radiation put out by these things and assumed that this was the output of all the devices at all times.
What? Quit giving me those looks. We all know that theory and practice are the same.
I remember an interview a long time ago with Ray Bradbury. He told a story — and I may be remembering this badly — of seeing a show at a carnival. The showman pointed at him and said, “Live Forever!” He almost did. He died yesterday at 91. And how apropos it happened after a transit of Venus.
There has been a lot said about the man — his amazing combination of optimism and pessimism about the future; his ability to get to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, often at the same time. He could write stories that evoked amazing pathos — my favorite being All Summer in a Day, still one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read. He could terrify — I used to have nightmares about Something Wicked This Way Comes. He could infuse us with he wonder of technology and space travel — when I saw Columbia launch on cold morning in Florida, my first thought was, “Rocket Summer”.
But, to me, the one thing that Bradbury was best at was evoking that feeling of youth — of recalling those endless summer days when you could run forever and feel the pure magic of being alive. The sense of child-like wonder in his writings was powerful and often dragged me back in time to when each day was a month and every year a century. He often did this to contrast against what he feared would be a sterile future. A perfect example is from Time in Thy Flight, when a little girl, Janet, is brought from the future to see the “frightening” past. In her words:
“I want to see it all again. I’ve missed the motives somewhere. I want to make that run across town again in the early morning. The cold air on my face — the sidewalk under my feet — the circus train coming in.”
And later, before she jumps the time ship to stay in the past:
“No, I just want to be inside. I want to stay here, I want to see it all and be here and never be anywhere else, I want firecrackers and pumpkins and circuses, I want Christmases and Valentines and Fourths, like we’ve seen.”
(And, in typical Bradbury fashion, one little boy is caught by the teacher and heart-breakingly unable to join his two companions in the past.)
Hopefully, Ray is somewhere where it always fall and spring and summer, where it is Christmas and Valentines and the Fourth. And is “inside the big house, in the candlelight, [where] someone is pouring cold apple cider all around, to everyone, no matter who they are.”
Hans Rosling is made of awesome:
I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.