John Carter: An Epic in the Old Style

I had opportunity to go catch the new JOHN CARTER movie last night (while away at COLD WARS 2012) and can summarize up front that it was a great movie experience. JOHN CARTER, for those of you who aren’t in the know, is a re-telling of Edgar Rice BurroughsA PRINCESS OF MARS with a little reworking of the script here and there to satisfy modern sensibilities. The original material upon which the movie script was based was written in the early years of the 20th century– with all that entails in terms of plotting, pacing, language and sexual roles and mores. The version that ended up on the screen has taken a significant departure from the source material in this post Hayes Code world we live in, yet retains the basic outline of the original story rather nicely.

Alert. From this point forward, I’ll be referencing the story “A Princess of Mars” and JOHN CARTER, and this post may end up containing spoilers. You have been warned. I strongly recommend you go download a free public domain copy of A PRINCESS OF MARS and read it before seeing the movie. Here’s a link to go do that. It’s not a sophisticated read, you’ll sail through it in a day or so.

First of all, the plot: the good side was that the storytelling was more sophisticated than in the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Metcalf’s ALL STORY MAGAZINE, the first publication where the Barsoom stories saw the light of day.  In the movie version, John Carter is still an ex-Confederate Captain, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after the Civil War (and his wife being murdered).  As in the original story, the bulk of it is revealed as a flashback to the narrator, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself.  As in the novel, Carter is transported to Mars (Barsoom) after being chased into a cave in Arizona by Apaches.  The setup was a little too broad stroke and obvious– there is a whole 10 minutes of film where the local Army commander is trying to get John Carter to ??? Sign up??? Volunteer?? Advise?? them about war with the Apache.  This gives the movie a chance to demonstrate what a hard case Carter is and do his Dirty Harry impression.  Ultimately it’s a lot of plotting for nothing as the story converges on the Cave with the Apaches outside it, just like in the book– it feels like time lost to me.

In the book, Carter knows immediately that he’s on Mars. In the movie, he’s a bit more stumblebum about discovering the idea for himself. “I’m John Carter.. and I’m on Mars..?” (Withering look from Dejah Thoris). In this film Therns are represented as a sophisticated alien race that is alien to Barsoom and Earth, master manipulators that feed off of creating waste and chaos. Their leader is Mattai Shang, who shows up in the original series a few books later. The original novel was more of a big battle and set piece story; in the film, they seem to be interested in creating an arch-enemy for John Carter early on. Sequels, anyone?

Other Good Stuff, the Effects: Wow, I was bowled over by the specials in this film. Sure it was CGI work but they conveyed the graceful flyers, brawny Thark civilization and giant white apes very well indeed. There’s a vast sense of scale to the story that makes it on to the screen, although I think it will play equally well in 2D as it did in 3D.  There just weren’t that many “out of the screen” elements in JOHN CARTER to justify 3D. The art direction was excellent. There’s tons of little things that gave the movie character, from the costuming to the very steampunk controls on the fliers and weapons. The technology and costuming fit the Frazetta-style visuals those of us of a certain generation associate with this story.

Kind of good, but could have been better were the direction and characterization of the lead actors. I loved a lot of the small visual stuff that was thrown in to describe the motivation and mindset of the principals. John Carter will use very earth like gestures and greetings to convey his culture, and the Barsoomian he would talk to would react in puzzlement.. That’s good detail, a Barsoomian would never know what shaking hands or saluting was, for instance. I liked that the principle female lead was not the shrinking violet of the novels. Dejah Thoris on screen is a professor, a warrior and a babe that looks good in a Princess Leia knockoff. Most important and best was that she is smart and has a sense of humor, which is a nice counter to the worst character on screen, which, sadly, is John Carter. I’m not sure why I was let down with the portrayal by Taylor Kitsch. He spends the first half of the movie trying to imitate Clint Eastwood, speaking in a hoarse whisper to demonstrate, I suppose, how tough and shellshocked he is. He gets a lot better after he finally decides to seek his destiny on Barsoom, it’s just that he seems.. I don’t know, a little young for this part. Not horrifically bad, just a little wooden and unskilled. The rest of the cast shines, in particular Lynn Collins as Thoris, Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkis, and the slimy Spartan bad guy from 300, Dominic West. The supporting cast is fantastic. Director Andrew Stanton must have recruited half the cast of HBO’s miniseries ROME to play parts in JOHN CARTER, as Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy and Polly Walker all have important supporting roles. In addition the presence of Mark Strong (the oily villain of the first SHERLOCK HOLMES movie) is top notch as Mattai Shang.

Pacing could have been a little more breakneck. I thought it slowed in places, which doesn’t seem right for an epic film of this nature, but the book slowed to a crawl in a few places as well, so it’s all good. The whizzbang battle at the end makes up for it. Just as in the book, there’s no happy ever after for John Carter, but I actually think the movie ended better than the story did– that ending always seemed clumsy and poorly executed to me.


For all of the nitpicking, which really is minor, I was very happy with JOHN CARTER, aka A PRINCESS OF MARS (which should be the title). It’s reasonably faithful to the source material, for a movie. It’s well executed and has some funny moments. The visuals are amazing and enhance the story perfectly. John Carter is a fantasy epic for a modern generation, giving a movie-going public that is a little burnt out on Star Wars retreads something entirely new and unseen before– a whole new world to mythologize over. I can see John Carter becoming a geek favorite in the years to come. If there’s no overweight girls wearing Dejah Thoris costumes at the next Comic-Con, I’ve lost all faith in geek humanity. John Carter is very much a movie I’d recommend and I’m going to see it again, which is a very rare statement for me!

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