Ahh, John Carter! Warlord of Mars! Consort of Dejah Thoris! In a big-budget Hollywood movie! Ask me if I’m excited!!! Well, I think you can see that I am. I am not letting any flop-talk flummox me. As a certified sci-fi fan, I was going to see this movie in any case. Who cares about big-name actors? Who even cares about budget? I even saw Asylum’s ridiculous Princess of Mars (2009), a complete rip-off movie which was made purely to cash in on John Carter (which was delayed a couple of years), and was actually a thinly veiled retelling of Return of the Jedi (1983). I was very eagerly awaiting the authentic John Carter movie; it was #8 on my top ten most anticipated movies of 2012. And now it’s here. So what’s the verdict?
A little summary first: This movie is an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel A Princess of Mars (I am just discovering now that it started as a serialized tale in 1912, so the movie is actually being released at the exact 100th anniversary of the story’s publication). What happens in the movie is the following (we’ll come to the differences between the book and the movie later): In 1868, John Carter, a disillusioned veteran of the U.S. Civil War, is accidentally shunted through a sort of alien wormhole device, waking up on Mars. This being the subgenre of sci-fi known as planetary romance, invented in pulp magazines from around the turn of the previous century and also featured in comics like Flash Gordon some decades later, Mars is imagined as an inhabitable planet with various people and creatures on it. Because the red planet has lower gravity than Earth, John Carter finds himself being superstrong on Mars – kind of like Superman near a yellow sun. It doesn’t make any sense, but call it a fanciful fantasy element. It probably seemed a lot less silly a hundred years ago. Anyway, because he is superstrong, John Carter quickly becomes a power factor all by himself in the political and martial struggles of the Martians. He is thrust back and forth between the warring parties, and meets Dejah Thoris, the princess of a major city called Helium, and is eventually influenced by her to choose sides in the conflict. However, the conflict is fuelled by some race of nearly all-powerful immortal aliens from way beyond Mars, who are apparently just evil and likes to lead other cultures to their doom. Their technology is based on a form of energy called the ninth ray, which is unknown to the Martians, but is just now being discovered by the super-smart Dejah Thoris, who is not merely a garden variety princess, but a sexy scientist as well as a well-muscled warrior princess. Allied with her, John Carter and Helium win one battle, and the two leads are all set for the altar, when the evil aliens shunt John back to Earth. The frame sequence of the movie involved how the returned John Carter has been trying for years to find his way back to Mars, and has put in place a rather brilliant plan to this end, involving his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, thus drawing the author himself into the story and making it seem as if his book was based on real events. Not a bad ending, says I.
And now, the verdict (but don’t worry, I’m not done commenting on the movie’s good and bad points – we’ll be getting to all that after the next paragraph):
John Carter was very entertaining eye-candy and neat planetary romance, but no superb masterpiece. In this, it was pretty much as I had expected. Knowing Hollywood/Disney, I curbed my enthusiasm and merely hoped for my expectations to be exceeded. Consequently I was neither disappointed nor especially impressed, overall. It was a fair but not inspired effort, meriting a rating of 7 stars out of 10 from me. I thought Taylor Kitsch had a very fitting appearance, but as a character his John Carter was rather too jaded to ever really come properly alive for me until very near the end. It was cool enough that he had to awaken his inner hero and all, but he didn’t have any really strong character moments or any particularly memorable dialogue (the only semi-cool piece of dialogue that I can remember was spoken by another character, and was something along the lines of “In this city, the women are as hard as the beds”).
Next, let us delve into the finer points of the story and the fictional universe, and also cover some of the differences between the book and the movie. I’ll divide the comments into major likes and dislikes, taking the dislikes first.
My major dislikes:
1. The look of Mars. In Burroughs’ book, Mars is a place of canals and agriculture; a lushly imagined alien world which in his mind would have looked nothing like what we know the planet to look like today. In this movie, sadly, Mars was represented precisely as we know it today – a desert wasteland – except that there were various people, breathable air and a couple of cities. This is a mix of Burroughs’ conception of it and the modern one, but it’s exactly the wrong kind of mix; it doesn’t make any sense. Disney’s choice to depict Mars as a red desert largely without water and vegetation was a terrible one. Dejah Thoris mentions in the movie that there were oceans once, but that only makes sense if, as in the book, there are canals now, and we don’t see any! (There is one sort of canyon river, but that is a secret place unknown to the locals, serving as a base for the evil aliens.)
2. The evil immortal aliens. Which are not in the book. And who, in the movie, command the ninth ray which ought to belong to the indigenous Martian culture. These evil aliens are nothing but a plot device to fuel the conflicts of the story, but they are a very poor one whose presence only diminishes the literary value and also the sci-fi content of this yarn. They also have no motivation at all, other than sadistically enjoying to see people destroy themselves. I think that’s stupid. Obviously, they were introduced in order to provide a way for John Carter to get to Mars, as the original book doesn’t provide an explanation – there, he basically just goes to sleep and wakes up on Mars, virtually allowing for the whole thing to have been a dream. Well, these evil aliens make no sense, either, and their robbing the Martians of one of the most intriguing and definitive aspects of their culture, namely the ninth ray, was a monumentally poor decision on the part of the movie-makers. Sigh.
In big-budget movies like this one, one always tends to like the effects and the general production values (although I did feel, as mentioned earlier, the design of Mars left something to be desired). Some say that cinema is technology, and a movie like this is a great showcase for what technology is capable of, splashing it all right up there on the big screen. Amazing vehicles, believably alien aliens, a man who jumps from building to building and accomplishes amazing feats of strength and heroism. And a sword-wielding amazonian woman… well, now we get to the one big thing I really, really liked about this movie. Dejah Thoris, as realized by Lynn Collins. According to the book, Dejah Thoris is basically the most beautiful woman in the universe. It was a key challenge for the movie-makers to create a properly impressive version of her, and they did. They really did.
In the book, Dejah Thoris is repeatedly kidnapped and needs saving, being not terribly much more than a damsel in distress to be saved by the dashing hero. Thankfully, they completely omitted that entire plot dimension in the movie. It was imperative that Dejah Thoris be a more modern and proactive woman, and so she is. She not only has beauty, but also brains and brawn. She seems to be everything she needs to be as the future queen of Mars; not just a scientist and a warrior, but also a politician and a master strategist. All virtues in one woman, indeed!
And she looked the part, too. I have seen Lynn Collins as Portia in Al Pacino’s The Merchant of Venice (2004), and she also played Wolverine’s girlfriend in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), but as I sat watching John Carter, I did not recognize her. I kept marveling at this (to me, I thought) unknown actress who filled out this role so amazingly, and wondering where the heck they’d found her. She seemed to have almost a body-builder’s physique, and radiating a robust beauty imbued with sexy intelligence. Great accent, too. It was not until I looked up the movie on IMDb.com after I got home that I discovered it was Lynn Collins. Granted, it’s possible she may not actually have the physique we saw in the movie; some of those action scenes (like when she’s dangling from the wing of an airship) were probably played by stunt doubles. Still, I give her full credit for embodying a famous sci-fi character in a way that could hardly have been more perfect. Lynn Collins, and whoever casted her and designed her look; you all did a fantastic job.
So, if it did not give us an epic and classic sci-fi romp of the highest order, at least John Carter gave us a worthy Dejah Thoris. That’s something!
Of course, this movie contains a lot of other details that one might also comment on, but I won’t. Mainly because I didn’t feel very strongly about the remainder of the elements. In a big universe like this, the primary task of the narrative should be to make us interested in this universe; interesting in seeing this world expanded and in more detail. But, sadly, I found most of it was quite dull. The Tharks, for instance? I liked that they looked much like they do in the comics (except thinner), but for the life of me I did not think they were very interesting. We didn’t hear much about their culture, and what we did hear was often contradictory and rarely engaged the attention. This really ought to have been better. The same is the case with the cities of Helium and Zodanga. What were the cultural differences? How did the societies work? None of this seems to have interested the movie-makers, which is a damn shame.
I’ll tell you what could have made this movie better: A more pulpy feel. Taking itself less seriously. With apologies to Ciaran Hinds (who’s great in serious drama), I really think that Tardos Mors – Dejah Thoris’ father and ruler of Helium – should have been played by William Shatner. It would have been perfect. I can hardly remember, but I think they tried to add some comic relief to various scenes, but it didn’t work very well. Maybe those sodding Tharks should have had more colorful personalities. This entire movie took itself vastly too seriously, and it shouldn’t have. The result is a profoundly uneven production.
Even so, I admit I would like to see a sequel – after all, there are very few big-budget planetary romance movies around. An expanded story can only make this universe more interesting, and if nothing else, it’ll afford us the chance to see Dejah Thoris again – which in itself is reason enough to give us another movie! Meanwhile, I may just go see this one again.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church (voice), Willem Dafoe (voice), Samantha Morton (voice), and others.
Runtime: 132 min.