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John Carter (2012)

October 24, 2012

4/10 Universal Soldiers

White men can jump, but that’s about it.

John Carter is about highly decorated Civil War greycoat who abandons his post to search for gold. Begrudgingly, he gets roped back into serving his country, nearly gets scalped in the process, and through a bizarre series of otherworldly events, finds his gold and gets transported to Mars. As it turns out, 19th Century Mars is a far cry from modern-day Mars. There’s oxygen everywhere, it’s inhabited by giant green men, and thanks to the changes in gravity and such, our Earth man can now punch like Mack truck and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Shortly after arriving, he gets himself captured by these giant green men. Despite being a prisoner, he proves himself worthy and in turns becomes a high-ranking member of the tribe. Then he gets caught in a battle between the giant green men and an army of Martians who look a lot like we do, and ends up saving the life of a Martian princess. Long story short, everyone on Mars is pretty much at war with each other, and so it’s up to John Carter to keep the princess safe and bring peace to the planet through the power of friendship and jumping. Especially jumping. Martians love that shit.

Now, this was an unusual experience for me. I’m the kind of person whose entire reading list is dictated by the adaptations hitting theaters. I like reading, I like movies, just seems to make sense, right? However, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars didn’t quite strike me as required reading, and never having heard of it before, I figured the movie alone would suffice. But then a funny thing happened. I watched the movie, wallowed in my dissatisfaction for a few minutes, then peeled on out to Barnes & Noble. Never before has that happened, and never before has a movie compelled me to read its inspiration after the fact. Didn’t make much difference in terms of my prior reaction to the movie, but being a much better read than the movie was a watch, it made the adaptation’s errors that much easier to pinpoint.

The best way I can sum up what went wrong with John Carter is that it’s a lot like Star Wars: Episode I. For those who remember and for those who don’t, the excitement leading up to the summer of ’99 was dare I say unparalleled. It was the origin story of Darth Vader, it had been 16 years in the making, and it was going to be awesome. After all, it was Star Wars. How couldn’t it be awesome? Lo and behold: fuck Episode I. Yes, that movie has a veritable rap sheet of criminal charges going for it, but to me, it all boils down to one thing: we could have gotten a Star Wars movie, but instead, we got a children’s movie. Not that I was betting on John Carter being the next Star Wars, but after first seeing its phenomenal trailer more than a year ago, I can’t say it didn’t look awesome. And while it doesn’t delve into Jar-Jar territory, it is nonetheless a disappointing exercise in unnecessarily overcomplicating some things and oversimplifying others.

Good lord, just look at that synopsis up there. It’s ridiculous how long that synopsis is. I almost feel like apologizing, but what’s worse is that I probably could have kept going for another paragraph. Although, in its defense, the plot of the movie does mirror the plot of the novel pretty closely, and the issue isn’t so much what’s been left out as it is what’s been added/how it’s all presented.

As for what shouldn’t have been added, Mark Strong’s character is a good place to start. Mark Strong plays this guy named Matai Shang who’s more or less a cosmic god of sorts. He holds the power, he’s the reason everyone’s at war, and he doesn’t take too kindly to John Carter’s meddling. Aside from the fact that his presence and powers raise a bunch of seemingly important questions that kinda sorta get answered (eg: could anyone really explain what the Ninth Ray was after seeing this?), the motives behind his actions are more or less non-existent. The best explanation I’ve got is that the guy’s on a power trip, the size of which is so epic that us Earthlings couldn’t even begin to understand. But by and large, there is no explanation, not even Even when John Carter asks the guy what his motives are and Shang basically answers: “Because I’m older than you. Now go to your room.”

Folks, that whole “grand design” shit is no bueno as far as villainy goes, and everything would have gone a lot smoother for all of us if he just hadn’t been around. It’s complicated enough trying to make heads or tails out of all the warring tribes here, the last thing we needed was a member of The Future Council getting on the stage to bogart the mic for no reason. Dude was barely a side character in the book. Insult to injury, man.

And as for how it’s all presented, the novel is a good place to start. As told by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story of John Carter is one of maturity, insight, and, at times, graphic violence. And in addition to the excitement of its adventures, it’s ultimately a story about understanding and the extraordinary qualities that make us human. As told by Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrews, the story of John Carter is essentially Gladiator in space with just enough juvenile humor thrown in so that you don’t forget it’s from Disney. So thanks for nothing, Disney. You are a jerk.

And then there’s John Carter himself – once written as an intelligent, thoughtful individual who’s as eloquent with his words as he is with a sword. Now, he’s written as the redheaded stepchild of Snake Plissken and Josey Wales. All he cares about is his cave of gold, he speaks like an uneducated weightlifter who was never treated for asthma, and he has about as much conviction as a mercenary in wartime. Granted, some of this is due to the miscasting of Taylor Kitsch who only serves to accentuate everything about his character that’s already been overdone. Plus, he looks awful in a beard. Still, it is the bastardization of John Carter that truly sums up this misguided script.

But the thing is, you don’t need to read up to notice every last one of these shortcomings. Because it caters to a younger audience by dumbing down its characters, and because it simply doesn’t know what story it wants to tell, it only becomes more muddled with time. While it’s nevertheless astounding how much violence you can get away with when your characters bleed blue, this is an adult tale that’s been hobbled down to a PG-13 rating. As a result, kids will laugh their asses off, and grown-ups will cringe throughout. Sons will be too hung up on the action to follow the story, fathers will be too confused to enjoy it properly. Mothers and daughters are smarter, so they’ll avoid the movie entirely.

It’s thoroughly aggravating the way this movie jumps from one extreme target audience to another while not hitting home for either. Also seems like a waste to have Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church all playing big green aliens. You don’t put a cast like that in mocap suits. Way to squander your talent, Disney. God, you’re such a jerk.

It’s actually kind of sad that this is the way things turned out for John Carter. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about it, but the potential was there. Believe me, I wouldn’t have read the book if it wasn’t. It’s a good story, albeit poorly told, and it could have been so much better with just a few more focused rewrites. And I hope this didn’t come off as a “book vs. movie” review, because the downfall of John Carter isn’t that it deviates from the strengths of the source material, but that it doesn’t know what it wants to be in the first place. The silver lining is that it’s generally gorgeous to watch, and I’m guessing would be far more enjoyable after a nice hefty dose of peyote. Then again, is that really how you want to spend 132 minutes of your day/high? Hell to the no, hippies.

Hell to the no.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. DARRELX permalink
    October 24, 2012 12:48 am

    I liked John Carter and Episode 1… for me I had previously seen a really low buget adaptation of the novel, it said on the cover, “the movie that inspired Avatar.” So if you can get your hands on the low buget version, Called Princess of Mars, you will appreciate John Cater much more.

    Episode 1 had a lit to live up to. If that was actually released first, rather then Episode 4, I wonder how Episode 1 would have been received. So I view it as the first episode in Star Wars. That way, the movies only get better, as all sequels should.

    • November 5, 2012 9:44 am

      Had no idea that adaptation even existed, and I’m sure it would have made me appreciate this far more than I did.

      And I am a firm believer that if Episode I had been the first movie released, we never would have gotten the next five entries. And even if we had, their legacy would be insignificant in comparison to their legacy today.

      Still, glad you liked both these movies a lot more than I did. Have a strong hunch I’m in the minority with this one.

  2. October 24, 2012 7:37 am

    Like you, I read the source novel after watching the film and agree the whole Mark Strong character and race could have been removed to streamline the movie. Unlike you, I thought of the movie as pure popcorn, and to me it succeeded.

    Good review with good points.

    • November 5, 2012 9:46 am

      Thanks, man! And glad you liked it for what it was. I think things would have gone much smoother for me had Mark Strong gotten the ax. Nothing against Mark Strong, but all that shit with his character wasn’t exactly helping matters.

  3. October 24, 2012 10:17 am

    To be honest, man, this movie didn’t really bother me as much. The story is all-over-the-place and feels as over-stuffed as my stomach after Thanksgiving dinner (can’t wait), but there was a lot that entertained the hell out of me and kept me watching. However, Kitsch just sucks the air out of this whole movie and I don’t know if that was his fault or the writers, but John Carter was a weak-ass hero to have. Good review Aiden.

    • November 6, 2012 9:03 am

      Thanks, man. Glad to you hear you dug it more than I did. And well said on Kitsch and Carter. Just some bad casting and weak writing. Serenity now.

  4. October 25, 2012 9:05 am

    John Carter was an exceptional film. Beautifully written, directed, and if you were a fan of the HBO Series Rome, it has an incomparable cast! For the roots of John Carter vs Star Wars, you might want to read a bit at this link, as Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, Stanton, etc., grew up reading the ERB novels and based their characters on John Carter. There are thousands and thousands of fans all over the world who love John Carter! GO BARSOOM!

    • November 7, 2012 5:20 pm

      Haha. Well glad you liked it so much! Never saw Rome, but perhaps I should have. Might have to give it a go if they ever make John Carter 2. And thanks for the heads up on the link. Sounds interesting and will check it out!

  5. October 25, 2012 12:49 pm

    I’m a huge fan of the original Barsoom novels and the film. I’ve got a few of the scripts from previous versions that were going to be made years ago, but fell through. There were SO many very UN-Burroughs changes that these scripts had, that I felt the Stanton version was much more true to the source material than all of the others combined. Yes, there were elements I’d have liked to have seen, and I do feel some of those, if not all, will be in the sequels that Stanton has planned. We only saw 1/3 of what he envisioned so I’m very VERY anxious for Disney to green-light those sequels because I want to see where Stanton’s version was going. I LOVE that Stanton kept the names the same, didn’t introduce characters that weren’t even in the novels (like the other adaptions did) and the alterations he made worked visually and in the scheme of what he was trying to achieve very well. I saw the film 7 times in the theater and a few more since getting the BluRay. I simply love! I feel the film got undue bashing and that many who “follow the crowd” continue to bash it and don’t have the ability to watch it objectively. I appreciate your thoughts on this and hope that maybe in seeing it a few more times you may feel less disappointed by it. First time I saw it I felt disappointed over a few details I had looked for from the books. But since then I’ve “lightened up” because I do think Stanton’s version takes “getting used to” for ERB fans. Now I “get it”. 🙂

    • November 7, 2012 5:25 pm

      Holy CRAP! 7 TIMES! You ain’t kidding around! Glad you liked it so very very much, and if I ever do get around to watching it again, I’ll be sure to report back. Do agree with you on Stanton’s decision to stay so true to source material in terms of plot and such, just felt the tone was pretty off, like it was playing towards a younger audience than it should have been. Still, one man’s opinion, and it’s starting to look like a minority opinion at that. Starting to think you guys are onto something…

  6. Ranben permalink
    October 26, 2012 4:28 am

    Some of what you say in the review makes sense on one level but I saw a lot more in the film than you. I agree that the motives of Matai Shang are baffling but then there were to be sequels and I think the writers were going to clear it up later. I realize that leaves the viewing of this film a little muddled but I believe the story is easily strong enough to over come that problem. John Carter is popcorn. It’s an old-fashioned fantasy adventure the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to those who have not seen it. It

    • November 7, 2012 5:31 pm

      Really do hope they make those sequels, if only to clear up the Matai Shang stuff. Still, this didn’t exactly kill at the box office. Having a hard time getting my hopes up. And you’re right, in a lot of ways it is popcorn, but I really felt like it had the potential to be more than that. Instead, it settles for popcorn, and that, among other things, was disappointing. Even popcorn needs to be held to a certain standard. Still, glad you enjoyed it more than I did and it certainly sounds like you’re not alone on this one.

  7. Jeffrey T Fouberg permalink
    October 26, 2012 9:43 am

    You are entitled to your thoughts on the movie John Carter. I do not agree with most of them and John Carter was a “Gray Coat” not blue coat. Virginia calvary wore gray. I thought Taylor Kitsch performance was good. I agree they changed the character of JC, but it worked for me and I love Burroughs entire series (all eleven books). You did not mention Lynn Collins’ performance as Dejah Thoris, nor how they changed her from the novel. I thought she was excellent in her role. Being a martial artist besides a Shakespearian actress, she was believeable with a sword. The movie is really an action/adventure/romance, as Burroughs initially thought of it as a romance in the star so to speak. Anyway, I am bias because I loved this movie. It is not for everyone, but I would recommend it to anyone to see and then they need to decide if it was worth it.

    • November 7, 2012 5:36 pm

      Oh, man. Thanks for the heads up on the greycoat thing. Can’t remember the last time I felt so unAmerican. As for Lynn Collins, I’ll give you that. Sorry I didn’t mention her, just seemed like I was rambling about the cast for a bit there. However, she was arguably the best of the lot and her character was the only one that felt truly honored from the novel. Wish I could say the same for Kitsch. Like you said, different strokes for different folks on this one, but glad you liked it more than I did. Seems like you’re not alone either!

  8. October 27, 2012 11:45 am

    I had read all eleven of the Barsoom novels multiple times before I ever saw this movie. I liked John Carter. While it changed some things to make a better movie, it was still quite true to both the plot and feel of the books. I can’t agree with your assessment of it.

    • November 5, 2012 9:49 am

      Well, hey, you clearly did way more homework for this one than I did, and certainly can’t knock you for liking it either. Was happy to find that it was very similar in plot to the novel, just wish it hadn’t been so dumbed down on so many fronts. Different strokes for different folks, man.

  9. mcdabs permalink
    November 1, 2012 12:26 pm

    I liked your review on the film and feel that this is an example of how a film can be let down the hype surrounding it. I have recently started my own blog I would appreciate any feedback on the subject matter or how its delivered.

    • November 5, 2012 9:28 am

      Thanks! Wasn’t so much an issue of it not living up to the hype, but still, since it doesn’t seem like I’m seeing eye-to-eye with anyone else on this thing, I’ll take it! And thanks for the heads up on your blog. Will check it out.

  10. JKS permalink
    November 2, 2012 5:08 pm

    IMHO, John Carter should rank among the best Sci Fi movies ever. I don’t really like too many movies anymore but I LOVED this. It had passion, heart, humor, excitement, interest, and flowed great. The Avengers, now THAT was a cluttered movie.

    TK’s performance I believe was “dumbed down” in some respects for the kids. But the directing really captured the emotional aspect of him losing his wife and kid during the Civil War. And his rally speach after killing the white apes and Tal Hajus practically made me want to jump out of my seat, grab a gun, and charge with him into battle against Zodanga.

    Lynn Collins and Willem Dafoe were excellent all around.

    • November 5, 2012 9:39 am

      Good GOD! That is some high praise, man. Glad you liked it so much more than I did, but gotta disagree with you on The Avengers. Another debate for another review.

      Will agree with you on Lynn COllins though, she was the best of the bunch.

      Wish it had gotten me as emotionally invested in its story as it did you, but what can I say, I just had the opposite reactions to all these scenes that struck a chord with you. Different strokes for different folks, brotha’, whatchagonnado?

  11. zackmandell permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:05 am

    I thought this was a well written movie review. However I didnt really enjoy the movie all that much.


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