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John Carter Movie Review: Go For The Spectacle, Don’t Expect Any Heart

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John Carter movieWhen Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars back in 1912, there was nothing like it. That book and the ones that followed in the John Carter series went on to inspire the imaginations of hundreds of science fiction writers and there’s little doubt that we have the mind of Burroughs to thank for everything from Star Wars to Tron. But that doesn’t mean the books or the movie based on them are really as good as those things they inspired.

I’m not sure how well Burroughs’ sci-fi books have aged. Read now they feel a little thin on explanation. While Burroughs put a lot of thought into some parts of his stories, developing the different races of Barsoom or coming up with a great scientific explanation for John Carter’s increased strength and leaping ability, in other areas he just sort of glosses over key elements. It’s never entirely clear, for instance, how a Civil War cavalry officer actually gets from Earth to Mars in the first place. Bringing the story of John Carter into the modern era means filling in a lot of those gaps and while the movie comes up with some very good ideas which do just that, it also means we’re left with a film that’s far longer than it should be and far less impactful than it might have been.

That doesn’t mean, however, that as a movie John Carter isn’t good. It’s at least as good as Avatar which, by the way, wasn’t just inspired by Burroughs’ Barsoom books but basically rips them off. Both movies suffer from story problems though and both movies are overlong. The emotion which should be there isn’t and while John Carter does a brilliant job of developing supporting characters it feels clumsy when it comes to its hero, John Carter.

Tars Tarkas and Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is set up as a man in mourning; his mind wanders constantly to the family he lost in war. Unfortunately, Taylor Kitsch is an actor with only one expression and none of the emotion of what he’s supposed to be feeling comes through. Eventually Carter ends up in a strange place, where he encounters green four-armed alien barbarians called Tharks, and their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). The Tharks are wonderfully realized, a complex alien society which soon adopts Carter as one of their own. John Carter is worth seeing for the Tharks, and Dafoe’s performance as Tars Tarkas, alone.

Into their midst drops a beautiful princess on the run. She’s a take charge warrior scientist (really) named Dejah Thoris and she needs John’s help. Barsoom’s other alien race, who look a lot like reddish-skinned humans, is at war and Carter may be the secret weapon who can end it. He’s a tremendous warrior and the movie’s battle sequences are a load of fun. There’s a sequence later on in the film in which Carter takes on an entire army of Tharks, and as the bodies pile up around him it’s an unforgettable battle. Though it’s hard not to notice that this is every bit a Disney movie, as the film cuts away from every sword stroke to minimize the violence.

But it takes forever to get to the good parts. Much of the movie’s plot is spent on looking for a way to explain Carter’s arrival on Barsoom and, alternatively, looking for a way to get him home. John Carter is at its best whenever John stops questioning and simply goes with the flow, laying waste to Thark hordes or playing a game of chase with his lovably speedy pet Woola. Lost amidst all the film’s awkward exposition, Disney’s determination to keep Burroughs’ decidedly rated-R story family friendly, and Taylor Kitsch’s permanently squinty expression is the emotional core of this story, which for all its charm, John Carter never truly zeroes in on. Go for the spectacle, go for the fun, just don’t expect anything as significant as the impact made by Burroughs’ books back when he first wrote them.

3.5 stars

Comments

  1. PClines says:

    Technically, Carter takes on an entire army of Warhoons, another green man tribe who are rivals of the Tharks.  Their race is just “the green men of Barsoom.”

    At least, errrrr, that’s what a geek friend of mine said… 😉

    • JT says:

      I believe you’re right… at least in the books.  But I swear I heard him call them “tharks” in the movie.  I could be wrong about that, but that’s why I went that route.  I remember being sort of jarred by it while watching, it was as though they were applying “thark” to all the green men of Barsoom… though earlier in the movie Tars Tarkas does mention the Warhoons.

      • PClines says:

        Nope, they call them Warhoons,  Sola actually shouts it once or twice as a warning while Carter and Dejah are in the spider-webby-solar-system room.

        I agree, though, it wasn’t terribly clear that “Thark” was the name of their tribe, not their species.

  2. Ecbisick says:

    Sometimes it’s just fun to watch a movie without it being ripped apart  scene by scene by so called experts in /on what people like…and for what its worth, I have yet to see a movie that has come up to the book and my own imagination….

  3. Ecbisick says:

    oh yeah and who cares how he got to mars…which green guys are called what, as long as it tells a story and moves along…its enogh for a lot of us!

  4. Zarathustra says:

    IMO, Burroughs is very light on the science and really doesn’t explain why John Carter has superhuman powers on Mars.  His strength and leaping ability are much greater than Mars lighter gravity would allow. Never mind, though, because “Princess of Mars” is a fantasy and not truly science fiction. And it is a wonderful adventure story with marvelous characters and lots of exciting action. Verne and Wells inspired later SF writers. Burroughs not so much.  

    • SonnyT2 says:

      Here’s a small sampling of the many science fiction writers who claimed Burroughs’ Mars novels inspired them: Terry Bisson,
      Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, James P.
      Hogan, Kim Robinson, John Norman and Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, Gene Roddenberry, Jerry Siegel (creator
      of Superman), and Carl Sagan (not a science fiction writer, obviously, but a lionized science writer). And of course, George Lucas.

  5. Opening the movie with the bit on Mars was clunky, and it was a bit long, but all in all I liked it a lot.
    The thing was though, I didn’t like it because I love the story of John Carter and thought it was a perfect adaptation, I liked it because it reminded me of the kind of Action Adventure movies we had in the 80’s before everyone became a boiled down, design by committee, self-referential, schlock fest.