John Carter: Hero of Mars

Far as I am concerned, there was only one major negative of John Carter: Disney screwed up the marketing big time and instead of a potential franchise, they ended up with a near-flop. And that is painful for me, since I enjoyed the movie. I’d seen the trailers before I went to watch it on the big screens, so I kind of had an idea of what it would be like, but since I’d never read any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels before, I didn’t know who the character was or what Barsoom really was. After watching the movie, everything changed for me.

In that same year, I listened to the audiobook of the first book, A Princess of Mars. I began reading the tie-in comics from Dynamite Entertianment, comics which built up the world that Burroughs had introduced to readers almost a century ago. I became a big fan of John Carter and Dejah Thoris, all thanks to watching that movie. Reading Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar novels, which are heavily influenced by Burroughs’ own work and present a kick-ass female protagonist in a similar science fantasy sword-and-planet setting, took things even further for me.

I still lament that John Carter failed at the box office. Disney’s ineptitude and the backlash from critics and fans before the movie even went to release ruined any potential success. But, thankfully, the movie has already become a sort of cult classic. I’ve seen it at least three times on DVD and each time has been a joy. It is a movie I can have fun watching every single time. Here’s the repost of my original review of it.

John Carter Poster 001This review has been a long time coming, mostly because I was traveling abroad when I saw it and when I got back I was quite immersed with my reading projects and my book reviews. So I sort of put this off for the longest while as I was suffering from somewhat of an apathy towards reviewing in general. In retrospect, that is the worse attitude I could have had because there is a very simple fact when it comes to John Carter:

I bloody loved this movie start to finish.

I’ve never read any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about John Carter and so going in, all I knew with regards to the movie was the general things I saw on the internet. My curiosity was quite piqued when one article described John Carter as the original superhero, one who is sort of a template for many of the heroes who have come after, heroes like Superman among others.

John Carter is a simple man, a former cavalryman for the Confederate forces who is now looking for gold in the hopes of making it rich and living happily ever after. Things quickly take a turn for the worse however when he is accosted by soldiers the US 7th Cavalry division and then later escapes a violent tussle with the local Apache Indians in the deserts of Arizona. And from thereon it is just a quick duck-in-a-random-cave to escape and meet-strange-weird-dude-with-shining-medallion and blam, you are on some random Martian desert, sucking dust.

As most openings for science-fiction films go, pretty average stuff so far, especially since this is all flashback and the film actually begins with Carter’s nephew arriving at his mansion to take over his estate, given that Carter has just died and what not. Regardless, I enjoyed the beginning. It set the tone for the rest of the film and it promised me a lot of things, all of which were delivered on well enough to keep me interested throughout.

The only time I’ve seen Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) in a movie before is his role is Gambit in X-men Origins: Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman. Kitsch had a decent enough role in the film, albeit one that suffers from the cliched being there for being there’s sake syndrome. His performance, given the short and brief role, did hold a lot of promise though I thought. In John Carter he definitely lets loose. While his role is that of a fairly typical superhero (just remember that this character is the predecessor of most others we are far, far more familiar with), Kitsch himself is less than typical. It’s an uphill struggle to really think of any other current mid-20s, early 30s actor who could have portrayed John Carter better and with as much naturalness.

The character himself is likeable, a total badass when needed, funny at appropriate times, enjoyable naive at times, and in the end, very easy to relate to. There is a lot of inner depth to the character that doesn’t get much screentime but I was perfectly ok with it. This wasn’t a script which was really looking to explore the character itself in detail. As such, Kitsch delivered a really good performance all around, with a boy scout charm that I thoroughly enjoyed in Tom Welling’s portrayal of Clark Kent in his pre-Superman role in the hit TV show Smallville. He may not win an award for the performance, but I expect to see him at least make it to the nominations. That’d be great.

Interestingly enough, Lynn Collins was also in X-men Origins: Wolverine, playing the titular character’s love interest Kayla Silverfox. She had a decent, moving performance in it, just as promising as Kitsch’s own. She definitely didn’t disappoint in John Carter, as far as I’m concerned. She is the somewhat cliched princess-in-distress but she nevertheless pulls off a strong outing. The script isn’t very ambitious so we don’t really get to explore much of her character, so she doesn’t get to shine much, which is the issue with Kitsch’s performance as well.

Princess Dejah Thoris is more than just eye-candy in the movie though, and I was quite thankful for that. The film would have been rather boring if she had been just the damsel-in-distress. The character is a warrior, aptly skilled in one-on-one combat, and this is shown several times to great effect. A half-clothed and tattooed accomplished swordswoman who falls head over heels for the hero may be a cliché but it didn’t quite feel as one here. I am definitely interested in seeing more of both Dejah Thoris and Lynn Collins alike.

Willem Defoe, with credits too numerous to count on ten hands, is one of the major league actors in the movie, playing the role of Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Tharks, one of the native Martian races. His is an interesting character, a leader who rules by strength of wisdom and compassion rather than brute strength. A simplistic explanation but there you go. Defoe definitely got one of the best lines in the film when he calls Kitsch’s character Virginia instead of John Carter, due to a communication gap. Made for some great hilarious moments. I didn’t actually know that Defoe was the voice of Tars Tarkas, a detail I found out only after watching the movie, so all I can say is that Tars is an endearing character throughout the film and that Defoe made for a very convincing voice-actor for him. He has that kind of a quality to his voice that perfectly fit the role, so there you go.

The other major contributor to the acting line-up would be Mark Strong, playing the villain Matai Shang who leads the Holy Therns, one of whose members Carter kills early on in the movie. I was somewhat disappointed with the character itself since the Therns’ true motives were never really revealed in the film. Too high-level stuff if you ask me. But Strong’s performance is admirable. His Matai Shang is a convincing villain, a rather smart one for a change of pace, and rather level-headed too. Strong was quite chilling in his portrayal at times and he pulled off the whole I-am-a-cool-kick-ass villain pretty well. The role fit him perfectly.

The pacing of the script is off at times but it doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the viewing experience. The movie still moves along fairly well, dipping in and out of some really great action scenes and some rather nice set pieces involving the characters just interacting with their surroundings and with each other in a somewhat thoughtful manner, like when John, Dejah and their Thark companion Sola reach their quest at the heart of the River Iss. It’s all handled in a simple manner that leaves you wanting more and never comes across as over-the-top or anything.

The visuals are definitely the real strength of the film. Mars, or Barsoom as it is called by the natives, is rendered nicely, the Tharks are a fairly unique race visually speaking, the city of Helium is breath-taking and mixes in high-technology with a certain barbaric quality very well, and just everything else really. Oh and the Martian airships. Loved them. Think of Jabba’s sailboat from Return of the Jedi but make it much more graceful and you are not far off.

The 3D aspect of the film was definitely a good mix. The theater I went to didn’t have good quality 3D glasses so I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I wanted to, but it was still a good experience. I’ve watched a lot of 3D movies since last summer and John Carter is definitely up there for some really good 3D visuals and scenes.

Overall, like I already said, the script isn’t very ambitious in the telling of it. When compared to recent films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, this is a big negative for it, but then again, it is a strength as well. The writers played it safe, wrote something within their comfort zone, and they made it all work in the end because of the collaborative effort from the rest of their team. All that is, except the marketing team. The movie has romance, action, politics, hidden agendas, heroism, magic, swords, jetbikes, and what not. They all make for a fun experience.

John Carter Stills 001

And it has all those nice little Disney touches too, like the (local version of one I have to say) loyal dog that follows Carter around and is some great comedy when things get a little rough for the characters. Some of the other comedy/humour moments made me think “this is totally like Disney”. I don’t know how to explain it really, suffice to say that this felt very much like a Disney film. And as a lover of the Disney movies like Aladdin, Hercules and what not, this only made John Carter that much more enjoyable for me.

The only regret I have is the marketing of the movie by Disney. That’s an entirely different topic for the purpose of this review but I’d just like to say that I found it quite surprising that John Carter wasn’t hyped anywhere near as much as it could have been. The most telling point is that the movie is missing “of Mars” in the title especially since the movie logo does have it in stylised characters. Without that addition, most people probably would and did give it a pass.

But still, this was a greatly enjoyable movie for me and I would highly recommend that people get it on DVD if it’s not available in cinema halls near you. It definitely deserves to be first seen on the big screen.

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Posted on February 16, 2014, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I really want to watch this film! When it first started previewing and whatnot, I actually (briefly) thought it was an ER film…. Yes, THAT John Carter. I’d never heard of the John Carter of Mars books.

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  2. oh, Disney did such a horrid job advertising this movie!! they had no idea what the movie was – was it a kid’s adventure? an adult drama? a family friendly action adventure story? so very tragic. and imagine if they’ve used the title of the original book? parents would have thought it was a princess musical, and wondered when Princess Dejah dresses would show up at the Disney store for Halloween costumes. actually, that would have been hilarious.

    I loved John Carter of Mars almost as much as you did. The Tharks were spot on, and I loved the first 2/3 of the movie. Near the end, I couldn’t quite figure out the plot, but the visuals were so good that I didn’t mind. I’d started listening to the audio of Burrough’s Princess of Mars but never finished, and then I finally read the book a few months ago. Once I’d read the original material, I realized why I was so confused at the end of the movie – the scriptwriters tried to jam about 80 pages of very dense prose into 15 minutes of movie.

    that said…. i gotta jump this to the top of my Netflix list, because now I really want to see it again!

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    • Yeah! My timeline went more like this: Watch John Carter in cinemas; read Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar; read the Warlord of Mars Vol.1 graphic novel from Dynamite; listen to A Princess of Mars. Suffice to say, I knew the story in and out by then! Personally, I think that it is a great story, almost timeless. An “original” pulp romance perhaps? Possibly!

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  3. Having read the John Carter of Mars series twice I couldn’t wait for the movie. The previews looked good and while I realize Hollywood scripts are rarely true to the original, that’s Okay. Telling a story in 2 hours is different than telling it over the course of one or more books, in this case three if memory serves me, but the movie had one flaw that I think doomed it to fail with fans of ERB’s original work. Anyone whose read the JC of Mars series will tell you that the people of Helium would never stand by and allow their princess to be forced into anything against her will, period. Anything else wouldn’t have bothered me but the reverence the Heliumites held for their pricess was something that came up time after time throughout the series. Removing that from the storyline turned the people of Helium into a self centered mob who cared more about themselves than their princess and was the one thing about the movied that bothered me. As I said, I liked the movie except for that one, in my opinion, flaw.

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