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. Even thought they are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating.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.