Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter

Well here it is. The movie I've been waiting for since I was a geeky 13 year old, dreaming of going to Barsoom. And how was it? Well read below and I'll try to tell you. If you want to skip the next paragraph-where I will attempt to summarize the plot-and skip to my thoughts go ahead.

OK the plot: After a brief opening narration-where we're informed that our notion of the planet Mars is wrong-we arrive in the middle of a decisive battle between two warring races-the Heliumites and the Zodangans-and it looks like the Heliumites are about to win and defeat the evil Sab Than (Dominic West). But he is saved at the last minute by three floating bald dudes-sorry the omnipotent Therns and their leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong)-who give him some device that attaches to his wrist and shoots blue lightening that can destroy anything in it's path. Back on Earth we finally meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an eccentric adventurer who sends for his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara). But when Edgar arrives, he is told his uncle has died under mysterious circumstances and has left him his estate-including a journal that tell his wild tale. While out prospecting for gold in the Arizona hills shortly after the end of the Civil War, John finds a cave of gold. But he has other problems-an Union general (Bryan Cranston) who wants him to fight against the Apaches. But after escaping the Union guys and the Apaches, John suddenly sees the light-a cave with a bald guy who attempts to kill him. When John grabs an amulet and repeats the man's dying words he suddenly passes out-only to awaken somewhere else. And before he knows it he can bounce around and is found by a group of four-armed creatures. He eventually meets their leader-Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the rest of the tribe known as Tharks. While John gets used to these guys, girls-especially the friendly Sola (Samantha Morton) and a big old calot named Woola, Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) has finally found the source of the "9th ray" which seems to be the same power source the Zodangans are using. Unfortunately a Thern in disguise destroys her test and her father reveals something else-he's promised her to Sab Than in matrimony to bring peace. Well not taking that lying down Dejah flees only to be pursued by Sab and his ships, until they arrive in Thark country where John takes action to save her. Believing that possibly his abilities could save her people Dejah attempts to get him to Helium but John just wants to go home, especially after he learns he's on Mars. And it's a long journey down the river Iss, through a motorized Zodanga and a lot of great white apes before he decides to help. And you can figure out the rest-a big battle and the biggest wedding crash since Flash Gordon impaled the groom.

Sorry for the last line. My sense of humor got in the way.

So after waiting 23 years-and I'm sure a lot longer for most of you-John Carter of Mars finally jumped to the big screen. I guess to start with as anyone who has followed this blog knows I've been skeptical of this film almost from day one. The track record of movies based on Burroughs' work. The fact that Disney was making it. Not being a fan of director Andrew Stanton or some of his casting choices or decisions. So when I went in I wasn't pitching my expectations too high. And when I came out I was of two minds-as a regular movie goer and as an ERB fan.

In the case of the former well the movie delivers big time, but with some major hitches. First the good stuff-Lynn Collins. Yes I know. I was really skeptical about her since having to endure her performance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Throw in early word of Dejah being a warrior princess and I was ready to give up. Well surprise she turns out to give the best performance of the film. She captures the girlish quality that Burroughs wrote about in A Princess of Mars, along with the haughy quality as well-in particular her doubts about John's story how he got to Barsoom. She also was quite gorgeous in the film-even with the tattoos-and showed a feistyness that I loved. In fact I almost wished they had just made a Dejah Thoris movie.

I also loved the performances of Dafoe and Morton as Tars Tarkas and Sola respectively. They brought humor to the roles while maintaining their dignity (even though I didn't care for the rewriting of their history-see below). And Woola was a scene stealer-so much so I'm still surprised that Disney hasn't released any toys of him. I'm sure kids would love to have one. The rest of the plusses: The great white ape scene was the action highlight as was John's escape from Zodanga. I also liked some of the supporting performances like James Purefoy's turn as Kantos Kan and West's Sab Than but they did suffer from being underused-or in the case of West being reduced to second banana status.

The one thing though that I am of two minds on is Taylor Kitsch's performance as John Carter. In the opening scenes on Earth I just had a hard time believing him as a shattered war veteran or for that matter a prospector. Once he was on Barsoom his performance got better and his scenes with Collins were pretty special. In some ways Kitsch almost brought to mind Harrison Ford in his early Star Wars/Raiders of the Lost Ark days-which is good. Just bear with the opening.

And now we head towards the dark side-the problems. And guess what I absolutely hated? Yep those darn Therns. It wasn't bad enough that they were rewritten into shape shifting, floating guys in robes but as a friend pointed out afterwards they were basically clones of the Sith from Star Wars, just minus the lightsabers. It also didn't help that Mark Strong basically played the same character as he did in Sherlock Holmes-a charlatan using people to accomplish his own goals of massive destruction. Also-and I can understand the complaints of the critics-what was their major goal? Basically as stated they don't cause the destruction of worlds, they just give them the tools to do it themselves. Well that's all well and good but if they destroy Barsoom where does that leave them? And what does it accomplish? In all honestly it was really vague as to their ultimate plan and I feel Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon must have just thought no one would care if it was confusing.

Other issues were minor but still annoyances. First I still don't see why Carter was given a dead wife and child since it really had little bearing on the plot at all and in the end didn't matter (I wonder since in some of those scenes Kitsch had shorter hair than the rest of the movie if these weren't added in reshoots after he cut it for Battleship). Also the opening scenes on Earth were dry and slow and filled with tiresome humor-John's repeated escape attempts for example. Finally the final battle was a chaotic mess in the editing-you couldn't tell who was fighting who which I guess can be blamed on the costume design.

Now that's just the average movie goer talking. As an ERB fan well I'll just cut to the chase: If you're expecting a faithful adaptation of A Princess of Mars you won't be happy. The skeleton is intact-from the opening to the wedding finale-but there is a lot of liberties taken. Some of it supposedly was done to flesh out the characters which in some cases does work-Dejah for example-but in other cases it doesn't. The biggest is the rewriting of Tars Tarkas and Sola's back stories. Why they needed to do this I don't know-it robs the film of one of the book's emotional high points and renders Tars in particular weak-especially in his scenes with Tal Hajus. I feel I would have to do another whole separate review to nick pick all of the things Stanton has gotten wrong but that will be another day.

So in closing after all of this rambling how was John Carter of Mars? Did it live up? Well as I said I went in with low expectations and came out entertained. It's a fun Saturday afternoon movie-nothing more, nothing less. And I guess that's all we could hope for. Rating: I guess I'll give it a ***1/2 out of 4 as a movie. As an adaptation a ** out of 4.


Diana Cole said...

Since this is the first of a story arc, perhaps some of the things that have been changed or are missing will be further developed in the later sequels, if there are any. Stanton did say the atmosphere factory would appear later. Therefore I am holding back on much judgement and just trying to enjoy the movie for what it is.

Howard C. Beam said...

MCR --

Your review agrees with my take on the movie as well. As Andrew Stanton's MARS; a 3 1/2 out of 4. As ERB's MARS; 2 out of 4.

And the Therns are the biggest offender of needless change...

Stanton may have painted himself into a corner with his changes to the Therns...

SPOILER ALERT - Do not read further if you haven't read the second book THE GODS OF MARS and don't want to lose some of the surprises from that book,

Ok, Now we can continue...

Dejah Thoris and Matai Shang both state in the movie, "The Holy Therns are a myth." If this is true, and they do not oversee the Martian Cult of Issus among the Red and Green Martians, then the entire plot-line of the Therns perpetrating the myth of the Valley Dor as "paradise" as a means to provide themselves with wealth, power, slaves and ultimately food is completely erased... So how can John Carter expose the Holy Therns as frauds, and overthrow them?

Also, if the Therns are rapacious space aliens who feed on the death and destruction of worlds, then where do the Air Pirates of Barsoom (The First Born or Black Martians as they are also known) fit into the story?

After all in ERB's stories they have preyed on the Therns, and perpetrated the Myth of Issus for the same reasons the Therns have; only they have duped the Therns as well...

All of this seems to fall apart with the changes made to the Therns by Stanton and Co.

And when the THE GODS OF MARS plot falls apart, then so does the upheaval of Martian society that results in John Carter being labeled a Heretic, and drives his quest to unite the various sundered races of Mars and rescue Dejah in the THE WARLORD OF MARS.

Gnotta' said...

Excellent review,
I've seen this movie too and I'm feeling like you, nice "teenager action movie" but a bad (really bad) "Princess of Mars" movie..

Dengor Don said...

I agree with your review and I'm glad that the movie was not named "A Princess of Mars", because it was not. I agree that Tars Tarkas was portrayed as a weakling compared with the Tars Tarkas of the book. The movie seems to have taken place on Mars over about a 5 day period in contrast to the book where John Carter was on Mars for a year before he married Dejah Thoris with him remaining another 9 years after the wedding.
However, I did enjoy the movie. It was not hard to follow as some have stated. It was still the best movie made from any of Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Hope it does well so we will have sequels and it would also encourage Angelic Pictures to go ahead with their production of "Carson Napier" which is based on Burroughs Venus series. My brother and I have been waiting 50 years for this to happen and needless to say , we don't have another 50 years to wait for another movie.

THULL said...

The Therns were ridiculous IMO. Sab Than could have been a good enough villain if they elaborated the story. And Zodanga was rediculous. I know people said ERB put it in two places so this is how they solved the problem. Well, they could have just chosen a place and left it as that.

John Carter learning the language. Solo begins to teach him. Then "6 months later" flashes on the screen.

I saw no reason for the River Iss voyage. Non at all. Made no sense at all and added nothing to the story.

Also hated all of the armor on the costumes. And what was up with all of the female warriors? Ugh

As a movie - B
As an ERB adaption - C

My wife who knew nothing about it liked it. She did think it was confusing in parts.

Duncansguide said...

Great review! You had a lot of the same problems I saw with it... Though I'm surprised you still gave it 3.5 out of 4 as a movie. ;-)

As for the film failing... Part of me is disappointed, as it makes further adaptations and follow-on stories less likely. On the other hand, part of me hopes this means it will be easier for someone to make another adaptation in a few years (since this didn't turn into a memorable franchise). One that will hopefully be a far superior adaptation.

Right... since I'm a huge Martian Tales and ERB fan, I'm off to read the rest of your blog!! :-D