Hello everyone. Recently I decided to get back into acting and I’m going to be appearing in a production of Comedy of Errors in two weeks time as Dromio of Ephesus aka the best Dromio.
Also, Spouse of Mouse is on a business trip leaving me with two orphans crying plaintively for their mother night and day.
Also, I have a really tight writing deadline to meet this week.
Ergo, review short. Soz.
Normally, a film like John Carter is exactly the kind of movie that I dread to review.
It aroused no strong feelings in me. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. But honestly, the more I watched it the more I realised…this is kinda good? I mean, the elements are really strong. For being a decade old, the effects hold up a lot better than most of what Disney is putting out today.
The cast is full of actors I love or at least have no ill will towards (I like Taylor Kitsch, y’all are just mean). The script is nothing spectacular but perfectly solid. There was clearly a lot of thought and love and creativity and subtle world-building that went into the design of its fictional Martian setting. And there’s some strikingly beautiful cinematography. Like this scene where John Carter is fleeing on horseback across the Arizona Territory pursued by Union Soldiers:
Just gorgeous, old fashioned film-making. There is a lot to like in John Carter.
And yet, and yet…something isn’t working here. Some wheel just ain’t clicking.
Okay, history time.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan, wrote the Barsoom series in the nineteen tens. These books predominantly feature the adventures of John Carter, an American Civil War veteran from Earth who is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and becomes a Conan the Barbarian figure, fighting wars, defeating monsters and having proper sex with girls.
Yeah, we’ll get to that.
Anyway, the Barsoom books are in this weird place in terms of broader pop culture. On the one hand, not only is John Carter not that well known, he’s not even the most famous creation of his author (that of course being Jimber-Jaw the caveman. And Tarzan, I guess).
But on the other hand, these books are, no joke, some of the most influential science fiction ever written. I mean, you have to work damn hard to find a piece of American sci-fi that isn’t at least indirectly influenced by Carter. For starters, Superman has a whole load of Carter’s DNA and that’s pretty much the entire superhero genre in his debt right there. Likewise, Star Wars, Dune, Warhammer 40k, Avatar…I could go on and on but I think you get the point.
The problem is…okay, personal aside. I, somehow, managed to make it to my twenties without ever listening to the Beatles. I know, I don’t understand how that happened either. And the thing is, when I finally sat down to listen to them my first reaction was “that’s it?! That’s the greatest band ever?!”
It’s the old “Seinfeld is Unfunny” trope. Pop culture has been rifling through Old Man Carter’s pockets for so long that there’s virtually nothing left that hasn’t been done elsewhere and probably better. Which is doubly unfair when you consider that Hollywood has been trying to make a John Carter movie since the thirties. If only one of those projects had gotten off the ground, the whole history of science fiction cinema could have been radically different. Instead we got this, a movie who’s only claim to fame is how few people saw it and how little of an impact it left.
Anyway, the film begins in 1881 with Edgar Rice Burroughs (yes, that one) attending the funeral of his uncle, John Carter. Carter’s body is laid to rest in a tomb and Carter’s attorney gives Burroughs his uncle’s journal which should take him approximately 130 minutes to read (less if edited for terrestrial).
So, flashback to 1868 in the Arizona territory. John Carter is a prospector who gets press-ganged into the Union Army by one Colonel Powell to fight the Apaches. Okay, so, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. In the novels, John Carter is a former Confederate soldier. Knowing this going in, I was expecting that the movie would either switch Carter’s allegiance to the Union or simply gloss over it all together and not mention it. To my surprise, the movie does neither. Now, the only thing I can imagine that would be more uncomfortable than an unrepentant proud, Confederate Carter would be a weepy, so-damn-sorry Carter. I want to watch a movie about a woke Confederate about as much as I want to watch a movie about a racist one. Actually, probably less, at least the latter would only insult my ethics, not my intelligence. But how the movie deals with this problem is actually, I think, really smart. We get a genuinely fun scene where Powell tries to recruit Carter only for Carter to keep trying to escape mid-sentence which ends with Powell giving his pitch with Carter locked in a cell:
POWELL: And in the eyes of Uncle Sam, a necessary man for the defence of the Arizona Territory.
POWELL: Son, we are up to our chin-straps in Apaches.
CARTER: Not my concern.
POWELL: I do believe it is your concern, Captain. Folks are being attacked in their own homes, slain.
CARTER: You started it, you finish it.
POWELL: Ohh! You gone native, have you?
CARTER: Apaches can go to hell too. We’re nothing but a warring species. And I want no part of it.
Carter has indeed severed his allegiance to the Confederacy, but only as a side-effect of severing his allegiance to the entire human race. He is just done with everybody‘s shit. The entire species can jump off a cliff as far as he’s concerned. I like this for two reasons; it feels more realistic and it’s also a good starting point for a story about a man who finds new purpose on an alien world.
Anyway, Carter escapes by pissing through the bars of his cell which attracts the guard who gets knocked out and his keys stolen. Carter rides off on Powell’s horse. Powell and a gang of soldiers tear off after him until they come face to face with a band of Apaches. It goes exactly how you’d expect and in the ensuing shoot-out Powell is wounded and Carter turns back to rescue him…which flies completely in the face of everything we’ve been shown about this character up until this point. I don’t even know why it’s in the script other than Powell is a character in the original story and apparently that’s justification enough for him to tag along.
Anyway, fleeing the Apaches, Carter and Powell find themselves in a mysterious cave full of gold. In the cave, a mysterious bald man appears and tries to stab Carter. Carter, having brought a gun to a knife fight, shoots the dude. He then touches the guy’s medallion which instantly teleports him to the surface of Mars.
After a neat scene of John getting use to the lower Martian gravity, he discovers that he can jump around like Mario. He gets captured by Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), a four armed green alien who is king of a species called the Tharks. And there’s a running running gag where, because Carter introduced himself by mentioning his home state, the Tharks insist on calling him “Virginia”. It’s cute.
Alright so. Here’s the setup. As well as the Tharks, there is a species of human-like Red Martians. There are two Red Martian cities, Zodanga and Helium. Zodanga is cruel and Helium is noble (in which case, it really should have been called “Argon” or “Xenon”.)
The things you learn living this blogging life o’ mine.
Okay, so. Helium and Zodanga are at war and the Tharks want nothing to do with it. The ruler of Helium, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) desperately agrees to wed his daughter, the Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to the ruler of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West). She ain’t having that and tries to escape and is rescued by Carter when her ship is shot down by Sab Than’s forces over the Thark’s lands.
The Tharks are so impressed by Virginia’s fighting prowess that Tars Tarkas proclaims Carter to be “Dotar Sojat”.
Carter tries to refuse but Tars Tarkas is all “nice princess you got there, shame if something happened to her” so he has to accept. Carter is obviously anxious to get chatting to the only woman round here who doesn’t lay eggs and when he starts talking about oceans she assumes he’s mad. We then get a scene where Dejah draws a map of the solar system in the sand and Carter realises that he’s not on Earth, but on Mars. Oh, and then he stands and looks up at the two moons in the sky.
When Carter tells Dejah how he came to Mars via a medallion, she tells him that he must be a “Thern”, a mysterious race of messengers for the goddess Issus. She takes him to the Tharks temple and, by reading some ancient inscriptions, Dejah discovers a map to the Gates of Iss which supposedly is how the Therns travel to and from the planet. She offers to guide him there in exchange for Carter helping her escape from the Tharks. Now a female Thark named Sola, who has befriended Carter tries to warn them against entering the Thark’s temple but all three of them get arrested and sentenced to death. But, it turns out that Tars Tarkas is actually Sola’s father (Tharks think families are cringe and don’t normally acknowledge familial bonds) so he frees all three of them in the night and they escape with the medallion.
On the way, there’s some shenanigans where it turns out Dejah was actually leading them to Helium, hoping that when he arrived there Carter would be so bowled over by the rightness of her people’s cause that we would join the fight against Zodanga. Carter snarls that “everyone thinks their cause is just!”
Finally she breaks down and admits that she just doesn’t want to marry the Prince of Zodanga because she thinks he’s a douche and he’s all “okay, that I can respect”. She agrees to take him to the Gates of Iss for real this time and in return he promises to consider joining the fight against Zodanga. She does this even though she admits that the Thern’s aren’t real and she doesn’t really believe that he’s from Earth, just that he’s a very bouncy lunatic.
Now, turns out that Therns are real and they are secretly guiding Zodanga and one of them is Matai Shang, who is played by Mark Strong because this movie was made in 2012, right smack bang in the middle of that period where he was in absolutely everything.
Shang has brough an army of Warhoons, who are like Tharks but even nastier, to recapture Dejah so that she can be married to Sab Than which is all part of the Therns Master Plan. As the horde attacks, Carter tells Dejah and Sola to flee and he takes on this entire army single-handed while having flashbacks to burying his dead wife and child after their farmstead was torched during the war.
And it. Is. EPIC.
I mean. Fucking hell. No notes.
Sab Than then shows up in his airship along with Dejah’s father, who explains that Sab came to him to tell him that she’d been taken prisoner by the Tharks. Zodanga and Helium have made peace and she is told she must marry him to secure the alliance. Dejah thinks Sab Than is a fucking SNAKE because look at him:
But, Carter desperately needs medical care so she agrees.
Carter wakes up in Zodanga and gets taken on a tour of the city by Shang who reveals his eeeevil scheme to have Dejah assassinated once she’s married Sab Than and unified Barsoon. He explains that the Therns feed off the death of worlds and that they are guiding the history of Mars to an eventual apocalypse.
Carter escapes and meets back up with Sola and the two of them return to…okay, apparently it’s called “Tharkville” but that sounds like something dreamed up by Doctor Seuss.
Tar Tarkas has been overthrown after letting Carter, Dejah and Sola escape, however, so Tars and Carter are both thrown into an arena and have to fight two massive white apes. Carter beats them, takes over the tribe and leads a massive army of Tharks against Zodanga’s forces. Sab Than’s killed, the wedding’s prevented and Carter and Dejah Thoris get married.
Not quite. Shang ambushes Carter, and teleports him back to Earth. Carter spends the next ten years on Earth fighting the Therns who have infiltrated Earth society just like they did Barsoom’s.
Now, here’s where it gets really complicated. It turns out that how the teleporter works is it creates a copy of you on Mars while your body remains unconscious on Earth, seemingly dead but in a state of stasis. Carter finds another teleporter on Earth but warns his nephew in the journal that using it will mean that his body is vulnerable to attack from the Therns on Earth.
Back in the present, Edgar Rice Burroughs rushes to his uncle’s tomb to prevent the Therns from destroying Carter’s body…only for Carter to show up, very much alive, and gun them down.
Carter explains to his baffled nephew that he was only pretending to be dead and that NOW he intends to return to Barsoom for real, now what he knows Eddie boy is willing to guard his body until the day he dies so that Carter can continue having hot sex with his beautiful Martian princess wife.
Many have blamed the historical failure of John Carter on an apparently abysmal marketing campaign. I can’t really speak to that as the only ad I ever saw for it was the teaser that made use of Peter Gabriel’s My Body is Cage.
And, clearly, anything that makes use of Peter Gabriel’s My Body is Cage is one of the greatest ads ever made.
Renaming it from “Princess of Mars” or “John Carter of Mars” to plain old “John Carter”?
Yeah, okay, that probably hurt it some. But I think I’ve figured out why, even though I do like quite a lot of John Carter, I can’t really seem to convert my love of the parts to a love of the whole.
Mostly, the plot is just too generic to engage. Yes, obviously the princess is going to recruit Carter to her cause. Of course Carter and the princess are going to end up together. No doy, Carter is going to rally the Tharks and lead them into battle against Zodanga. These tropes were, if not new, at least less used in Burrough’s time but because the Barsoom books have been such a foundation for so much modern sci-fi and fantasy it feels really, really familiar.
Now, that’s not necessarily a death sentence for the film. Not every movie has to be The Prestige. In fact, there are real advantages to a familiar, well-worn plot structure. Take for example, The First Avenger.
Was there a single moment in that film where you thought “damn, I did not see that coming?”
Of course not. The plot is pure boilerplate.
What makes it work is all the stuff that hangs on the completely rote plot. The music, the performances, the characters, the period detail etc etc which are all top notch and elevate the movie.
And to be clear, none of the equivalent elements in John Carter are bad. They’re just…not…quite…good…enough.
That said, I really hope there are people out there who have fallen in love with this film and are willing to champion it.
I just can’t quite bring myself to be one of them.
NEXT UPDATE: 18th May 2023
NEXT TIME: The bird, the bat and the cat…
I watched the movie in theaters with my parents and we enjoyed and laughed and forgot about it within a week. It just doesn’t stick in your head
That’s the thing! It’s just so mentally frictionless
Okay to start with, how did you manage to miss the Beatles until your twenties? I can only imagine that your mouse hole is located somewhere in the middle of the north Atlantic and all the visiting seagulls were Elvis fans.
Now, the movie. You laid out most of the problems pretty well, the whole of it is pretty basic and filled with things we’ve seen before that were done much better. One thing I have to point out is that Taylor Kitsch brings barely anything interesting to the role. As you pointed out, he is just done with everybody‘s shit but that also means he’s pretty checked out of all the fantastical wonder that should come with setting foot on another planet. His “A princess of Mars, how about that?” line is delivered with the same “ugh” energy as a teenage girl assigned a book report from her least favorite teacher. Even by the end he’s giving “whatevs” vibes even when a half-naked Lynn Collins is right there waiting to bang him.
If the characters are invested in the adventures of their story then chances are the audience won’t be as well. The Mummy understood that, even when its heroes are being chased by a rotting Arnold Vosloo they’re still marveling at and engaged in the setting and stakes. Even with the problems in Prince of Persia they understood that.
By the way, good luck looking after your little orphans.
In my experience, most seagulls are bigger fans of reggae for some reason.
Shared this before but I grew up in Tarzana CA (a suburb of Los Angeles) which is indeed named after Tarzan because pretty much the whole place used to be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ranch. His grandchildren used to raise sheep in a field down the street from my parents’ house (it’s a housing development now). Our local library branch has a shrine to him in the lobby.
“Ergo, review short. Soz.”
If this is your short review of John Carter, I’d hate to see your long one.
I glossed and skipped over a LOT trust me
Not going on a small rave about Mr Mark Strong and his Charles Dance-tier ability to improve a film with every scene he’s in undoubtedly left this review shorter than it might have been.
There’s also a sad lack of Lynn Collins in the photos attached to this review, but you’re a married mouse and busy with your brace of orphans, so I forgive you.
– Nods benevolently –
No rating? Do you not normally do ratings for non-Disney/marvel movies?
I’ve kinda given up on it if they’re not animated or part of a series
Good luck with the acting gig! And the orphans too, I guess!
I know I’ve seen this movie, my roommate rented it once, but I remember so little. Definitely pretty though.
Heck yeah, Batman Returns. As a kid that was one of my favorite movies. As an adult I can see its flaws, but damn if it doesn’t have a distinct identity. Kinda the Anti John Carter in that respect.
> Which is doubly unfair when you consider that Hollywood has been trying to make a John Carter movie since the thirties. If only one of those projects had gotten off the ground, the whole history of science fiction cinema could have been radically different. Instead we got this, a movie who’s only claim to fame is how few people saw it and how little of an impact it left.
To be fair, there’s kinda an obvious hurdle to making John Carter in the 30s. Namely, that a large portion of the supporting cast are 10 foot tall aliens with 4 arms. Special effects technology was not up to snuff for a while.
Either way, next time should be fun. I’m a major non-fan of the Burton Batman films, but I can’t deny they’re FUN in how bad they are.
Also, yeah, the Ant-Man thing HURTS. Good news is, GOTG Vol. 3 just came out, and I heard it’s the best one since Endgame? Eh. I suppose you’ll be the judge of that.
I cried pretty much non stop for the final hour. It’s a beautiful beautiful film.
Lesson learned: Do not doubt James Gunn. Are we sure we can’t just skip the nightmare and go right there?
Do not tempt me, Satan.
You got me, i’m actually Jose Carioca, trying to tempt you to break the bonds of your reviewer vows…Ah, the old days.
Man it’s been a weird journey
I feel like when I think of this film, I always mix it up with Prince of Persia, like, scenes from that movie always end up coming out in my mind as scenes from this movie and vice versa. They’re just both so bland and visually similar.
I definitely wanted to like John Carter, in the same way I want to like any new sci fi movie that comes out, but watching it was a truly dull experience for me. I could tell while watching that I was supposed to really care about the characters, but they were all so paper-thin to me that I was left with a bloated messy film with nothing to really latch onto.
I guess I did enjoy the sheer lack of embarrassment it seemed to have while showcasing the really dated science and other somewhat corny aspects from the original books. That kind of sincerity and confidence is something I sort of miss from Disney these days.
It just struck me today that casting ‘Manly’ Mark Strong as John Carter of Mars would have oompahed up this film a good deal.
I’m not sure it would have done bigger business, but there’s a reason Mr Mark Strong can be relied upon to improve just about anything he appears in (May he someday appear as the younger Jean-Luc Picard, if one should ever be required).
As for the film in question, I rather like it but would not describe this feature as essential viewing (I think it may have needed a bit more SWAGGER to really work out for the absolute best).
On a less serious note I’m eaten up with curiosity about how the non-Royal side of the Emerald Isle is taking in all the Pomp & Circumstance (One gets the amusing mental image of reactions being a mix of “Thank God we don’t have to care about this” “Aw hiss, a three ring circus we don’t have to pay for!” and “What’s all this d*** racket about the n?”) but since you’re a Mouse doing his best by two poor, wailing orphans I’ll limit myself to a comforting thought:
At least you only have a pair of pinkies to worry about: imagine life if you littered like the average mouse! (-;
I’m sorry, I could NOT keep track of what was going on. Therns and Tharks and Soja Issus Dejah Warhoon Tars Tarka Zodanga Sab Than Tardos AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGH
I can only take so many random collections of vowels before whatever thin string of plot I’ve managed to gather snaps like wet spaghetti.
Good review tho.
I know. I know, I’m sorry I’m sorry
Say Mouse, are you by chance interested in covering Triplets of Belleville?
It’s by far my favorite foreign animated movie and it always impressed me when a movie or a short can tell a story with little to no dialogue. The music is awesome too.
It’a not on my list but may I compliment you on your excellent taste in animation? Singing Bellville Rendez-vouuuuuuuuuuussssss…
Aww… too bad. But yeah, that song is something I come back now and again. It’s one of my favorites!
This is a really good review even though you wrote it, I imagine, while bouncing an infant on each knee and typing your other work with your left hand.
The talk about Carter’s Confederate origins almost made me go in a long tangent about the Civil War and the Lost Cause. But not today, I guess. I will say that another possible solution is to say that Carter never wanted anything to do with the war either, that he was a draft-dodger forced into service against his will. There were thousands of them throughout the South. It avoids the implication that Carter ever believed in the cause, and helps characterize him as someone who just wants to be alone, making him ultimately join the war in Mars be more meaningful.
I never saw any trailers for the movie. I saw the film’s poster one day when I went to the movies with a few friends. It looked like a generic science fantasy flick, but I vaguely remembered the name, so I stopped and pondered where I knew the name from. Then, one of them (former student of Egyptology with whom I shared an interest in early pulp literature) went: “Wait, is this supposed to be Princess of Mars”? Only the I made the connection and said “Oh yeah, this is supposed to be John Carter OF MARS!”
And everyone else around us just went: “Huh? Who?”
A week or two later both of us watched the movie together (the others couldn’t be convinced to join us), in a small, virtually empty cinema shortly before the end of its cinematic run. And found it… Serviceable. I think she enjoyed it a bit more than I did (i guess bare-chested dudes appeal to her more than to me, natch).
We both agreed on one thing though, we had no idea what audience the film was actually made for. We had kind of expected it to be a glorious, self-care ham-and-cheese-fest – but it was too polished and sincere for that. For a serious modern SciFi epic, the setting is too silly though. For a kid’s movie it was a smidgen too dark and complex (not that kids movies can’t be dark and complex, but the themes just didn’t sit right for that) – for mature audiences the action was way too harmless. So it was a decently made adventure flick for the broad mass – but as my friends had demonstrated, the broad mass (at least in non-english-speaking countries) doesn’t know who John Carter is supposed to be. And for those in the know, the movie lacked the “Come and witness THE O.G. SciFi adventure extravaganza” appeal.
In trying to make a movie for everyone, they managed to create something hardly anyone was interested in. And for them, it was an enjoyable, but forgettable experience. Like a well-made cheese sandwich that could’ve done with an extra slice of ham.
Mouse, I just want to pop in and offer British condolences on the latest Eurovision developments: Sweden fixed that event so thoroughly it might as well have been a castrated bulldog.