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John Carter (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

JOHN CARTER (2012)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West

Written By: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel)

Directed By: Andrew Stanton

The Short Version

One of the all-time classic science fiction heroes finally makes it to the big screen.

Eight decades of development prove to be too much; science has overtaken the fiction.

An overzealous director wrings the life out of things, despite wanting to keep faith with the source (when it’s convenient).

There is real strength in the lead performances.

John Carter isn’t bad, but it should have been far better, especially with a quarter billion dollar budget.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEESE POPCORN, PURCHASED AT THE CONCESSION STAND.

It’s been sitting around for how long before you popped it and it costs how much?!


Pairs Well With...

RED DOG.

Beer for the red planet.  Like the character of John Carter, when Red Dog was new, it was a premium name to be reckoned with.  Now?  It’s seen better days, but it’s not throwaway material.

“Beans.  The first item is beans.”


Twice upon a time, a writer named Edgar Rice Burroughs changed the world of adventure fiction as we know it.

One character he created inhabited the jungles of the Dark Continent, and after great success on paper became a staple hero of early Hollywood and beyond.  Indeed, this character was so popular that the town in which Burroughs made his home voted to rename itself after the fellow.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him; his name is Tarzan. (The town, of course, is Tarzana.)

But before Tarzan, Burroughs created a character whose adventures were set somewhere even more forbidding than the jungles of Africa: the planet Mars.  This hero’s name was John Carter.  And though Carter and his adventures would go on to inspire a century’s worth of writers, filmmakers, and even scientists, odds are that you never heard of him until some ads for this movie started popping up in late 2011.

The odds are also good that the ads didn’t impress you; the marketing campaign for John Carter is already being called one of the worst in Hollywood history as of its opening weekend, and the accusation really isn’t an unfair one.  [Sad but true sidebar: just a month before the movie came out, I was watching the Super Bowl with a group of non-literary friends when an ad for the movie came on.  Two people thought that “John Carter” was the guy from the Terminator movies.  The rest just shook their heads; one said “sounds like a basketball player.”  None of them were the least bit interested in the movie after seeing the trailer.  Even amongst my literary friends – including some hardcore science fiction nerds – I know almost no one who’d heard of John Carter before, and I am the only person I know who’s read any of the books.]

It’s all quite shameful, really, because as one of the great characters in the history of adventure fiction in general and science fiction in particular, John Carter deserves better than that.  After literally eight decades of Development Hell, you’d think he could have gotten it, but alas...

What you get, in short, is this.  John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, Snakes on a Plane) is a Civil War veteran (of Confederate cavalry vintage) trying to find gold out West.  When he finally does, he is confronted by a stranger, and after killing the stranger in a scuffle, Carter finds that he has somehow been transported somewhere... else.  It’ll take him a while to figure it out, but that somewhere else is Mars, and soon, he’ll find himself at the center of a different kind of civil war than the one recently ended back home: a war fought between men in airships that ride on rays of light and observed by four-armed, green-skinned warriors who prefer to stay on the ground.  He’ll also find himself vying for the love of a Princess named Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)…

Back in 1931, John Carter was supposed to be the subject of the first feature length animated motion picture, but the story proved to be too complex, so instead, the world got something called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six years later.  From then on, various attempts were made at reviving the project (even after the character started to fade into popular obscurity outside a core community of genre die-hards after World War II) and rights changed hands a few times, but nothing really caught hold again until the millennium turned.  Robert Rodriguez almost had it once, but there were Union issues. And so it collected dust and the rights changed hands again until finally, animated film director Andrew Stanton was given his choice of any Disney-owned property to take on as his first live action feature.  As a fan of Burroughs’ work, Stanton knew just what he wanted to do.  He wanted to make John Carter of Mars.

Except he didn’t want to call it that.  Not until the end of the movie, anyway.  In his eyes, the story’s really about John Carter of Earth becoming John Carter of Mars, see, and he figured that the title John Carter would have more universal appeal, anyway.

It’s that kind of logic that burns through a quarter billion dollars faster than a turn-of-the-millennium dot-com executive, with similar results.  It doesn’t help that Stanton and his crew found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place here, because the Mars that the science of a hundred years ago was able to suggest for Edgar Rice Burroughs to imagine is not the Mars that we know today.  Back in 1911, there were no close up photos of the planet; no rovers crossing its dead landscape.  Indeed, at the time, it was considered a real possibility that water flowed in great teeming rivers on the surface.  And so they did in Burroughs’ stories, with lush jungles growing alongside them in places, prowled by creatures with names like Banth and Sith.  (Sound familiar, anyone?)  These stories would inspire a young man named Carl Sagan to reach for the stars himself in search for life, and as he worked with the team that sent the Viking lander to Mars, he admitted that the boy inside him hoped that the first picture would reveal a signpost declaring “Barsoom,” Burroughs’ name for Mars.  Instead, the Viking mission Burroughs helped to inspire (and later exploratory craft) would discover and thoroughly examine a rock-strewn wasteland which may have had running water a billion or so years ago, but that doesn’t now, and that certainly has no jungles or vegetated plains to speak of.  Nor does it have air that humans can breathe, or a climate that would allow anyone to walk outside without an insulated space suit, for that matter.  Stanton and his adaptation team handle the matter by splitting the difference.  The jungles are gone and the planet is becoming a wasteland because Forces of Evil are destroying it, but – at least as of the Earth-equivalent late 1800s – the air and temperature are still fine, and there’s one river left.

If you’ve read the books (most notably “A Princess of Mars,” upon which John Carter is primarily based), this is a rudely jarring displacement from the world you’re used to, and makes Stanton’s assurances that he wanted to “keep faith” with the source material seem absurd.  If you haven’t read the books, it just seems ridiculous, and it probably wouldn’t have been much harder to accept Burroughs’ original vision than it is to swallow what’s there.  It’s a lose-lose compromise that makes me think audiences really would have been better served had someone managed to make this movie before the science overtook the fiction. 

The common knowledge science of the setting aside, Stanton also faces another impossible challenge in that every science fiction writer/filmmaker and his dog has lifted from the John Carter stories, so that almost everything in this movie will remind a modern audience of something else, despite the fact that John Carter really did go there first.  (I couldn’t help but think back to when I went with a friend to see the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo and had to note that the adventure plot clichés unfolding weren’t cliché back when the source material was written.)  In his defense, there’s nothing he or anyone can do about that, so if John Carter reminds you of a more civilized Conan, so be it.  (Actually, the character of Conan was created twenty years after John Carter by Burroughs’ latter-day contemporary, Robert E. Howard, who had certainly read some Carter stories himself.)  The Princess of Helium bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Princess of Alderaan is no accident, either, and again, the influence train runs back to Burroughs.  And so on and so forth.

As for the definitive traits that make John Carter of Mars who he is, Stanton again meets the audience halfway.  On the one hand, he’s faithful to the essence of it: Carter can jump extraordinary distances on Mars and has immensely superhuman strength.  So far, so good.  Unfortunately, a quarter billion dollars apparently doesn’t buy wire work that stands out any less than what Hong Kong directors get for 1/250th the price or less; it is really obvious.  What isn’t obvious, though, is why Carter can do what he does.  The books tell you right away: it’s because Mars has lower gravity than Earth does, so Carter’s Earth-toned musculature allows him to perform at higher levels.  [This was kickass science back in the day; today, we politely ignore that this effect is only temporary and that if he stayed on Mars for any length of time, his body would weaken accordingly without constant strenuous exercise.  This is true of space station astronauts and would be true of anyone on the moon who stayed long enough, too.]  The movie, though, doesn’t bother mentioning that until pretty far in, and even then, it’s two sentences that are separated by almost an hour, mumbled both times, and very easy to miss. 

This is but one of many instances where the primary Catch-22 of John Carter presents itself.  If you’ve read the books, the changes can drive you mad.  But if you haven’t read the books (or at least “A Princess of Mars”), half to three-quarters of the movie won’t make any sense.

This, when all is said and done, turns John Carter into really expensive adventure candy that just goes in one eyeball and out the other.  Like I said, Burroughs and his character deserve better.  On the other hand, to you and me, this movie costs the same as any other, and at that point, with all of the history brushed aside and the wretched marketing campaign forgotten, it’s just serviceable enough as that adventure candy, so long as you don’t mind unbuttered popcorn.

See, Stanton doesn’t have time to add butter.  In trying to cover as much of “A Princess of Mars” as possible while also adding his own material (oh yeah, Burroughs fans: he changes the way Carter travels to and from Mars), Stanton takes the approach of simply skimming everything at high velocity.  Seriously, folks; don’t take any bathroom breaks.  You’ll miss something.  It doesn’t feel like a plot so much as it does a checklist.  You’re given just enough thread to hang on to, but damn, is it ever thin.

Of course, when you hear how much the movie cost, I’m sure you’re thinking special effects, and… yeah, they’re there, but I’m just not seeing a quarter billion dollars’ worth.  Once again, I’m going to have to go with the word “serviceable.”  Not bad (as long as one ignores the embarrassing Thark hatchlings or the cheesy wire stunts), but nothing’s really standing out for me, either.

Nothing, that is, but the cast.  (All right; the cast and Woolah.  Woolah’s just too damn cute, and even if he’s not given the explanatory justice he deserves, the spirit of the creature’s affection for Carter as described in the books is there.)

Taylor Kitsch does a much better than expected job as John Carter, playing the role with an amiable charm while also looking convincing enough when the time comes for some heavy lifting.  Lynn Collins, playing the character Burroughs continually referred to as “the incomparable Dejah Thoris,” does everything she can to live up to that description, and in this world, she succeeds. She brings a commanding presence to every scene she’s in, and always holds the audience’s attention no matter what’s going on around her. 

Willem Dafoe (Streets of Fire) brings strong support as the man behind the four-armed CGI that is Tars Tarkas, and captures the noble spirit of the literary character even as the script gives him the short end of the stick.  (Tarkas is a stronger presence in the books.)  On the villainous side of things, it’s really only the strength of the performance given by Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) that allows the character of Matai Shang to work at all, because the script is doing even less for him than it does for Tars Tarkas.  Indeed, that same analysis can be played straight on down the line; wherever the thin script threatens to fail, decent casting picks up the slack.

And that, in the end, is what makes John Carter work as a movie despite some massive flaws compounded by the weight of history.  Is it the masterpiece that it should have been after eighty years of waiting for the bigtime and more money than most people can sanely comprehend?  No.  Is it the landmark movie that science fiction nerds (and Hollywood) wanted it to be?  No.  Is it entertaining?  Somehow, despite the odds, yes.  And at that point, if you’re curious, you certainly won’t be wasting your time by having a look for yourself, so long as you keep your expectations in check.

Bottom line, John Carter isn’t great, but it isn’t bad, either.  There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours and change, though if you really want to get the most out of this story, I’d suggest reading “A Princess of Mars” as well or instead… followed by some sequels.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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