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John Carter by Director: Andrew Stanton; Screenplay: Andrew Staton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon.
Review by Daniel Dern
Buena Vista  ISBN/ITEM#: B005LAIH2W
Date: 02 April 2012

Links: IMDB Record / Official Movie Trailer / Show Official Info /

Over the weekend, I went to see the new movie, John Carter (132 minutes; Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action); available in 2D and 3D), and here's my quick opinion: If you wanted to go see it but let negative reviews or other downer-buzz keep you away, ignore them, go see it, and enjoy. (I'm relieved to see that Dan Kimmel, an sf-savvy media reviewer/critic whose movie criticism essay collections include the recent Jar-Jar Binks Must Die... and other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, gave JOHN CARTER a positive review.

Poo and bah on the overly-negative reviewers and critics, I say: this is a faithful-enough rendition of Edgar Rice Burroughs' nearly-100-year-old classic science fiction/adventure novel, A Princess or Mars, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas, Woola and all, that people who have read the book (and perhaps several of its sequels) can go without fear (in my opinion) of being disappointed or ticked off that it has desecrated, violated or tromped on the spirit of the original book(s).

And I think that people who haven't read the book (or don't remember it) will enjoy the movie on its own terms, i.e., as a fun SF flick. If that's you, let me know.

(Note:, we saw it in 2D; according to some friends, 3D doesn't add much.)

If that's enough to make you go see John Carter, feel free to stop reading here (or to pause, and come back after you've seen it).

For the rest of you, here's some more comments and thoughts. No spoilers, thought, I think. (For those familiar with the books, plot spoilers wouldn't really matter here, but there's some lovely bits I don't want to ruin the pleasure of being surprised with.)

A BIT ABOUT THE BOOK(S)

Edgar Rice Burroughs is best known for creating Tarzan -- a member of the short-list of iconic fictional characters known near universally (along with, I believe, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Superman and Spider-Man).

A Princess of Mars -- initially serialized as "Under The Moons Of Mars", was Burroughs' first book, written in the early 1910s, when he was thirty-five and, having inadequate success at business to support his wife and children, tried turning to writing.

Burroughs went on to write another ten books in his Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants, in the books), along with lots of Tarzan books, and shorter series of planetary romances, set on the Moon, on Venus, in Pellucidar inside our Earth (which, here, is hollow), along with westerns, historicals, and other books.

(Note, the book -- indeed, all of Burroughs' Mars books -- are available free from Project Gutenberg (and any ebook app you use should show these books as free, although they may also offer for-sale versions.)

The Mars books mostly chronicle the adventures of John Carter, a Confederate veteran who gets to Mars through some fuzzy handwaving version of astral projection (the details don't matter). Somewhat like Krypton's Kal-El (Superman), Carter finds that on Mars, his muscles, used to a higher gravity, let him jump amazing distances and do other minor feats of strength. (The earlier versions of Superman, that is; not the more recent "solar-powered" rationalizations for Supes' abilities far beyond those of mortal men.)

I was fortunate (at least I think so) to be growing up when most of these books were being affordably reprinted in paperback, or otherwise available and bargain-priced in used bookstores and at science fiction conventions, along with Doc Savage and other adventure/SF, along with the YA-oriented (before the category officially existed) books from Heinlein juveniles, and pre-teen-digestible works from Arthur C. Clark, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Van Vogt, Simak, Kornbluth, Pohl, et cetera... but that's another story or three for another time. My favorite of Burroughs' Mars books, in terms of images that left a strong impression, was The Chessmen of Mars, for the heads bopping around on tiny legs in search of their next host body.

Do the books re-read well, as one gets older? They're not masterpieces of style or of deep characterization. The best Tarzan book I can think of is Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, written by Fritz Leiber, based on the movie.

(Philip J. Farmer's books about a more realistic Tarzan -- Lord Tyger, and paired Tarzan/Doc Savage renditions in A Feast Unknown, Lord of the Trees, and The Mad Goblin. Note: Lots of violence, sex and combinations in these Farmer books. Good reading, too!)

I don't know how readable Burroughs' Mars (or other) novels are to a first-time adult reader, relative to the often (but not always) astonishingly well-written books being done for YA and A audiences these days. But that's not a fair test.

One more snake's-hand before I segue to the movie itself: There have been a number of good comic book versions of Burroughs' Mars books. In many ways, comic books are the best medium, visualizing without the compromise of FX budgets or the need to use models, CGI and other expensive tricks. Marv Wolfman (with Gil Kane and others) did a nice-looking run for Marvel Comics, back in the late 1970s (I've got issues 1-11, according to my "comics for sale" list). And Dynamite Comics has been doing a very nice bunch of series (named Warlord of Mars, in case your comic book store sorts alphabetically) over the past year or so. And Dynamite has gotten fabulous cover art for their comics, from Arthur Adams, Alex Ross, and others. (Check out their Warlord of Mars calendar.)

SO WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIE?

The John Carter movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars books -- some from A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series, and some from books two and possible three, somewhat similar to how 1985's excellent Return to OZ movie combined parts from the second and third Oz books.

It was made by Disney; the screenplay was by Andrew Stanton (who worked on animated Pixar pics like WALL-E, FINDING NEMO, and TOY STORY), Mark Andrews (worked on The Incredibles and many other animated pix) and Michael Chabon -- author of The Yiddish Policemen's Union (which won the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula, and Ignotus awards) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I don't know whether we have Chabon to thank for helping retain the integrity of the film, vis a vis the science fiction canon, but it wouldn't surprise me.

There weren't a lot of well-known (to me) names in the cast. Taylor Kitsch (who played Tim Riggins on the TV series Friday Night Lights) was John Carter. Willem Dafoe (the Green Goblin in Spider-Man 2, among many roles). I recognized Dominic West, from his great role as Detective James McNulty on HBO's series The Wire. IMDBing other cast members show I've seen some of them before, here and there. No complaints.

Anyway: After a quick set-the-scene-on-Mars, the movie starts with start-of-story on Earth, a few years after the end of the American Civil War, establishing John Carter as an ornery now-former Confederate soldier.

(Thankfully, Disney did not try to update this -- unlike in the dubious-at-best Princess of Mars straight-to-DVD movie from a few years back, where they made John Carter a contemporary U.S. army sniper serving in Afghanistan. This movie was soooo bad that when it turned up on the SciFi channel (before they revoweled themselves to SyFy) I forced myself to watch it through to the end to ensure I never had to go back and try again. I'm still not sure that was the right decision.)

Anyway, so soon enough, John Carter is on Mars, and encounters his first aliens, the tall, green, feisty, four-arms Tharks.

And the plot ensues. Earthman fights Martians. Earthman meets Martian princess. Fights (with swords, guns, and muscles), explosions, et cetera. Boom! Zoom! Crash! Ka-pow!

The plot strays a fair bit from that of Burroughs' first Mars book, grabbing pieces of books two and three, and adding/inventing a fair amount. I could itemize... but I didn't care (in a good way). This was Burroughs' Barsoom. I was happy.

TRUE TO THE ORIGINAL IN ITS FASHION

These days, of course, everybody's SF-familiar, thanks (or no thanks?) to Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc. I.e., the tropes are well enough known, having aliens and space are within pretty much everybody's "comfort zone." How much the average viewer will know/care whether Disney went seriously off-canon, I dunno.

Part of the inherent challenge in doing a movie like this is meeting expectations of the book's (or comic book's) fans. Or for movie remakes, fans of the original/previous movie. Or for comic books, reboots. (I was on an interesting panel on comic-and-movie reboots at the February 2012 Boskone science fiction convention, as a side note.)

I can't speak to the Harry Potter movies-versus-books -- I read/skimmed all the books, and saw all (but 1 of 8) the movies, but don't care about 'em enough to have an opinion. That said, there's other movies-made-from-books-or-comics I do have opinions about, some positive, some negative. For example:

  • I enjoyed the Lord of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I've read and re-read the books more than enough, but frankly, was happy to let the movie do its thing, and not get too invested in over-caviling. Go figure. On the other hand, as someone who saw enough of the original Star Trek series, I had trouble enjoying the most recent Star Trek movie, because I kept waiting for one rebooted shoe too many to drop, as it were, or otherwise annoy me. (I decided that, plot and logic flaws and all, I was OK with it, and enjoyed the movie a lot more the second time I saw it.)
  • I liked the first Iron Man movie (I still haven't yet seen the second) and the Captain America movie, I give major props to both for being remarkably good film presentation based on 50+ years of the comic (including the Ultimates quasi-parallel version) -- and being a good enough movie to boot. Green Lantern was a good transfer from the comics, but mediocre movie. The Golden Compass, exceeded my expectations, looked better than I would have imagined. (See my review.)
  • Watchmen -- I was too familiar with the comic book series to have an opinion of how it was as a movie qua movie -- but zowie, IT LOOKED JUST LIKE THE COMICS, AND MATCHED (enough of) THEIR CONTENT. (See my review.)
  • The most recent iteration of Batman movies, good mostly... but "that's not the Batman I grew up with." (OTOH, I found the latest Sherlock Holmes movies action fun, no cognitive dissonance complaints.)

The John Carter movie was true enough to the spirit of the book(s). There were some changes that I liked or am content to be neutral about:

[MILD SPOILER ALERTS]

  • Dejah Thoris also showed her professional side, as a scientist/engineer. And also displayed some serious on-screen fighting chops. Yes, she (and many other Martian females) wielded their share of knives, swords, guns, etc. in the books, but I believe they ratcheted things up a few notches in the movie. Not complaining.
  • Some changes to John Carter's backstory, throwing in a bit of Jonah Hex. Fair enough, provided some more depth to his character here.
  • Superimposing some interplanetary conspiracy theory. Annoying, but on consideration, it helps provide a platform for multi-movie plot arc -- sometimes good, sometimes not.

One aspect of the conspirators I really didn't like. It's a gimmick I don't like in any movie. One word: shapechangers. (Or image control doohickeys. Same difference.)

On a positive note, the movie added two or three humorous bits, here and there, and they were nicely done, one reminiscent of a scene from the first Spider-Man movie.

[END SPOILER ALERTS]

SOME CLOSING MISCELLANEOUS NOTES

A quick skim of the Wikipedia entry for the John Carter (I didn't want to learn too much more until I finished writing this review) turned up some interesting facts:

  • Bob Clampett (of "Beany and Cecil" fame) had worked on an early animated version of Princess of Mars, which, sadly, never got shown. Sigh.
  • John Carter is, or at least was, made with the intention of it being the first of three, this being "the origin movie". Let's hope that bad reviews and less-than-stellar (so far) revenues don't nix this. It's bad enough that we're unlikely to get the two movies that should be following up The Golden Compass to complete Pullman's book trilogy. Sigh.
  • The songs in the sound track have some way cool titles, showing unusual latitude and humor, for example:
    • "A Thern for the Worse"
    • "Get Carter"
    • "Thark Side of Barsoom"
    • "Carter They Come, Carter They Fall"
    • "The Second Biggest Apes I've Seen This Month"
    • "Thernabout"

As with the Watchmen and recent Star Trek movies, I found myself as much simply enjoying seeing what I'd read, while being ready to be disappointed, versus watching a (fun) movie. I ended up being more than happy enough. I don't know that I'd go see John Carter again, but I'm ready to borrow (when it's available) the DVD to see an extended Director's Cut, deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, extras, and Easter Eggs.

If this doesn't convince you to give John Carter a try, then perhaps you'd rather kill a few minutes watching the first hit from Googling "cats star wars" (for this week).


Our Readers Respond

From John:
My son actually took me to this movie one afternoon he had free of work. We were the only people in the theatre. I was more than pleased with it. I had read "Princess" eons ago in junior high, so it was hard to remember. However, I didn't feel they screwed it up. A little updating (wormholes,etc) and some contemporary dialog/action scene conventions but they only added to the narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My son did too. We figure the MSM people couldn't understand parts of it and so it must be "BAD" in their view. Thus influencing the general public to stay away from a good time. Hey, it's not Bergman but it was good.

Thanks for validating my opinion. Keep up the good reviews. Always enjoy them.

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