Stream John Carter for the spectacle and stream it for the fun. Don’t expect anything as significant as the impact made by Burroughs’ books back when he first wrote them.
Based on the work of iconic author Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter was saddled with a terrible title (it should have been called A Princess of Mars) and unfairly lackluster reviews. So, it never caught on with audiences when it was released in 2012. However, that doesn’t mean that John Carter isn’t good.
John Carter is better than Avatar, which, by the way, wasn’t just inspired by Burroughs’ Barsoom books but basically rips them off wholesale. Both movies suffer from story problems, and both movies are overlong. The emotion that should be there isn’t there, and while John Carter does a brilliant job of developing supporting characters, it feels clumsy when it comes to its titular hero, 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 he’s supposed to feel comes through.
Eventually, Carter finds himself 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 in John Carter, a complex alien society that 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 (Lynn Collins), 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 that 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. Or at least as unforgettable as it can be, limited by being an early 2000s Disney movie.
John Carter was made in 2012, back when Disney was still trying to be family-friendly. So, the film cuts away from sword strokes to minimize the violence.
When 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 book is as good as the things it inspired.
I’m not sure how well Burroughs’ sci-fi books have aged. Read now; they feel 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 glosses over key elements.
It’s never entirely clear, for instance, how a Civil War cavalry officer 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 John Carter movie comes up with some very good ideas that 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.
The good parts are good, but it takes forever to get to them. Much of the movie’s plot is spent 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 when John stops questioning and goes with the flow, laying waste to Thark hordes or playing a game of chase with his lovably speedy pet Woola.
Lost amidst 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 a great story. It’s a story which, for all its charm, John Carter never truly zeroes in on.
See John Carter for the spectacle and stream it for the fun. Don’t expect anything as significant as the impact made by Burroughs’ books back when he first wrote them.
GFR‘s JOHN CARTER REVIEW SCORE