MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: John Carter

The rather mundane title of John Carter belies the epic scale of this enjoyable, pulpy cacophony of heroic adventure, war and romance. Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) off a script co-written by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, the film follows Civil War-era former Confederate Captain John Carter as he gets magically transported from a mysterious cave to Mars, where he’s first a prisoner and then a hero. The script was adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs 1912 serial that eventually, post-Tarzan-success, became the book Princess of Mars, arguably one of the most influential pieces of popular fiction ever written, at least in terms of the scope and breadth of its lasting influence on science fiction and fantasy.

As such, there are familiar elements within the frames of this film reminiscent of everything from Star Wars to The Princess Bride to The Neverending Story to Somewhere in Time, from classic Westerns to Avatar to Braveheart to Mars Needs Moms. The question is whether that’s just because all those films (and more) were so strongly influenced by Princess of Mars to begin with, or because this John Carter has in turn been influenced by the way in which those films built on Burrough’s ideas. (As an aside, we can all agree to just pretend the atrocious 2009 Princess of Mars starring Traci Lords just never happened, right? Right.) I’d argue probably a little of both, though I’m not sure any of that really matters in terms of how much you’re likely to enjoy John Carter for what it is.

It’s not a perfect film, but there’s a solid, classic story structure here that does a good job of breaking down a great many players and a somewhat complicated plot into a mostly digestible two-plus hours of fun and action. There is a lot going on here, but honestly, I didn’t find it so complicated that I couldn’t keep up with what was going on most of the time, and my eight-year-old son, who attended the screening with me, kept up with everything and was utterly enthralled from start to finish. The script takes a lot of information and smartly breaks it down with (relatively) minimal exposition and a good deal of action, which is pretty much what you want from a fun, pulpy adventure story about a hero who finds himself on an alien planet that turns out to be not so very different from the Old West on Earth he left behind.

That hero is John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch, who’s certainly ruggedly handsome and manly, and takes repeated beatings and tossings about without, apparently, ever breaking a bone), a former Confederate captain who, in the wake of the deaths of his wife and daughter while he was off fighting for the South in the Civil War, has now decided that war is bad no matter who’s doing the fighting or what the cause. Unfortunately for John Carter, he’s really good at fighting, so of course you know he’s going to get roped into something — tough guys who can fight but don’t want to always do in stories, right? Besides, otherwise we’d be sitting there for two hours watching John Carter carve horse figures out of chunks of wood or something. So, reluctant-but-highly-qualified, studly hero? Check.

We have some confusing bits to get through before we, along with Carter, end up on Mars, though. The opening sets up that there is, in fact, life on Mars (Barsoom to the natives), and that as we enter the story, that life largely consists of two warring cities who are locked in a battle to the death. Then we jump to some skulking around London, the arrival of nephew Ned (who’s supposed to be Burroughs himself) summoned by his wealthy uncle (that would be Carter), Carter’s untimely demise, vast wealth, some mysterious stipulations in a will, and, most importantly, the journal in which John Carter intends to share his fantastic tale with the nephew who always looked up to and believed in him. Okay, whew, we made it through that set-up with minimal exposition in the dialogue, thanks — and now we’re on to Mars, where things are about to get more interesting.

Once on Mars — sorry, Barsoom — we add to our checklist of the comfortingly familiar: The Tharks, a tall, four-armed alien (Native) race that thinks Our Hero looks as strange as he surely thinks they are; Our Hero having unusual and desirable skills (the difference in gravity on Mars allows Carter to move around in superhuman ways); a beautiful-but-smart-and-tough princess in peril who needs Our Hero’s help; plenty of witty, sexual-chemistry-fueled banter between the Princess and the Hero; cool ships, rowdy battles, much blood (blue, not red) spilled, and an unlikely outsider uniting the locals behind a common cause; an adorable sidekick in the form of a loyal alien dog; and a side story (I would have liked more about this bit, in fact) about an outcast alien chick who finds the inner strength and courage to help lead the very people who have abused her and tossed her aside. And then we have what’s perhaps the most interesting element of the story (or it is to me at least): the role of the Therns, messengers from “the Goddess” whose role seems to be to stir up trouble, violence, death and destruction while they whisper words of influence and sit back and watch the mayhem, apparently to alleviate the boredom of immortality (kind of like Q on ST:TNG, only without Q’s snarky sense of humor). If one of the evil Therns had revealed himself at the end to be John Carter’s long-lost father, it would have been practically perfect pulp.

There’s a lot going on in this film from start to finish, and you do have to pay close attention or you’re liable to get lost amid all these Tharks and Therns and warring humanoids. In the big battle scenes, it’s often difficult to tell who’s fighting for which side, but that also feels like part of the point, a mirror of sorts to the Civil War battle John Carter left behind back on Earth, in which brother fought against brother. It’s big, and sprawling and at times, yes, somewhat confusing, but the story underneath it all is solidly drawn, which for me (and my kid, and I’d have to say all the kids around me at the screening) kept it completely engaging from start to finish. When we got in the car to go home after, my son expressed surprise that the movie had been over two hours long, and I felt the same; having sat through many an 87-minute indie film that feels more than two hours long, I appreciate it when a longer film clicks along like that. That’s not to say I think it really needs to be two hours long – it could have used a 15-minute or so trim without losing cohesiveness. But still.

John Carter does have its problems, which for me make it solidly good rather than fantastically great, but it’s certainly entertaining and well worth catching. There’s fantasy-type war violence and blood (albeit blue) spilled in abundance, and I’m pretty sure I heard at least one utterance of “goddamn” that surprised me and possibly an f-bomb in there; the cursing is really unnecessary to the story, honestly, and I wondered why Disney didn’t just excise that from the final film. I realize it seems silly to some to think that parents might not object to the depictions of war and violence but would to a couple of curse words, but the reality is that some parents will, so from a marketing standpoint if it’s not crucial to plot and character, why have them in there?

My greater issue, at the screening we attended, was the 3-D and specifically the way in which it was projected at that particular theater (that is to say: very badly). The screen was so dark that at times I couldn’t see what was going on at all, and it was also frequently blurry. I kept taking off my glasses and wiping them, thinking maybe they were dirty or something, but in talking to folks after the screening, it clearly was not just me. A fellow critic told me she’d seen the film at a previous screening at a different theater and it looked fantastic then, and she recommended I catch it again in 2-D just to see the difference. And I probably will do that, because the rest of the gang really wants to see John Carter anyhow, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. And honestly, there’s not a lot of pulpy-type adventure movies about which I’d say that.

Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Review: John Carter”

  1. Geoff says:

    Great review – though I didn’t hear any f-bombs.

Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
Also Debuting
The Hate U Give 0.17 36
Shine 85,600 609
Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
96 61,600 62
Andhadhun 55,000 54
Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4.8 (1,630) -26% 181.1
The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
Let's Be Cops 4.3 (1,570) -22% 73
If I Stay 4.0 (1,320) -28% 44.9
The November Man 2.8 (1,030) -36% 22.5
The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4