CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: JOHN CARTER (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A vast desert. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are riding strange tusked creatures that look like a cross between rhinos and dinosaurs, called thoats. LS is wearing a hooded robe.)
MA: Uh oh, what have you got us into this time?
LS: What do you mean?
MA: I mean, we’re doing this review from the planet Mars!
LS: No, no. The natives call it Barsoom.
MA: Barsoom? Isn’t that a member of the brass family? A cousin of the tuba?
LS: What are you going on about? Stop showing your ignorance.
MA: I’m feeling a little lightheaded. This Martian atmosphere sucks.
LS: Nonsense. The Martian atmosphere actually energizes us so we can do amazing feats of strength and agility. Well, the atmosphere and the gravity. And the density of our bones.
MA: You’re not going to start leaping around are you?
LS: I was thinking about it.
MA: And how come I don’t have a cool hooded robe to protect me from the sun?
LS: Oh, stop complaining. We have a movie to review.
MA: Why don’t you start, since you seem so comfortable in this alien environment?
LS: Okay, I will.
JOHN CARTER is the new live-action movie from Disney, of all people, and is based on the novel “A Princess of Mars” by the great Edgar Rice Burroughs—the man who also gave us Tarzan! —which was first published all the way back in 1912. Strangely enough, the new movie stays somewhat faithful to the novel and yet seems completely modern. Burroughs was way ahead of his time, and has influenced everyone from the old 1930s FLASH GORDON serials up to George Lucas’s STAR WARS films. This is where it all began, folks. And it’s about time Burroughs got his due.
MA: Yeah, but the problem is in terms of movies, we’ve seen Flash Gordon, and we’ve seen all the STAR WARS films, so this movie doesn’t seem fresh at all.
LS (ignores him): “A Princess of Mars” was just the first of a whole series of novels Burroughs wrote about John Carter and his adventures on Mars, or as the creatures who live there call it, Barsoom. Back when the novels first came out, Carter was as popular as Tarzan, but over time, a lot of people forgot about John Carter. Nice to see Hollywood finally take notice of the character. So don’t sit through this one thinking “Hey, this is a STAR WARS rip-off” because John Carter came first.
MA: Not in the movies he didn’t. I hear what you’re saying, and I get it, but again, in terms of movies, this film isn’t bringing us anything we haven’t seen before, nor is it improving upon what we’ve already seen in movies like STAR WARS.
LS: What are you talking about? JOHN CARTER has its own look, its own creatures, and its own vision. It’s actually nothing like STAR WARS except on a very superficial level: flying machines and mix of humans and alien creatures. And there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of movies with their own versions of things like that.
The story here is how Carter, a Calvary-man and captain in the Civil War, tries to turn his back on soldiering to focus on gold mining. But, while fleeing from Apaches, he ends up in a strange cave where he is transported to the planet Mars. In the book, he enters a death-like state in the cave and his soul sort of “astral projects” to another version of his body on Mars. In the movie, an alien shows up in the cave, attacks Carter. After killing the alien, Carter picks up the being’s teleportation amulet, which sends him to Mars.
Not as mysterious as astral projection, maybe, but probably easier for modern-day moviegoers to understand.
In the movie, Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, who some people might remember as high school football player Tim Riggins from the underrated TV series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2006 – 2011). Kitsch was great on that show, but I had no idea what to expect of him in JOHN CARTER, since the last movie I saw him in, playing the X-Man Gambit in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009), where he was awful and completely miscast as the Cajun mutant. Luckily, JOHN CARTER is a big step up from that dismal performance.
MA: Really? I though Kitsch displayed as much charisma in this one as a Martian rock.
LS: Are you still feeling lightheaded? Kitsch was just fine as Carter. I liked him a lot in the role.
MA: I didn’t. He’s supposed to be this rough and tough soldier, but I wasn’t buying it. He just wasn’t intense enough for me. Kurt Russell, he wasn’t.
LS: No, he’s no Kurt Russell. Or Russell Crowe. I actually would have preferred an older, more seasoned John Carter —I mean this guy was a captain in the Civil War —but Kitsch has the physicality to make the role work and make you suspend disbelief just enough to enjoy the show. Is he the perfect actor to play John Carter? Not really. But he’s a choice I could live with.
Once on Mars, John Carter learns that he has to adapt to the planet’s different gravity, and has a hard time moving around without going hurtling through the sky. Eventually he learns how to harness his ability to leap great distances. He also has superhuman strength. If this sounds familiar, it might be because Superman had similar powers when he came to Earth and got accustomed to our gravity and atmosphere. Oh yeah, and leaping great distances is also the way the Hulk travels around. So right away, those are two famous characters influenced by John Carter.
MA: Why don’t you just kiss the guy already?
LS: Not cool, dude.
(They come upon a lone THARK SENTRY in the desert)
SENTRY: Halt! You are about to enter Thark territory. What makes you think I should let you pass?
LS: Our incredible good looks?
MA: What is he saying? I can’t understand a word he said. And what are you saying now?
LS (to MA): Trust me on this one.
(LS suddenly jumps off his thoat and hurtles into the sky)
LS: These are some moves Michael Flatley taught me.
(LS jumps about crazily, so that it looks like some kind of frenzied dancing. The SENTRY applauds)
SENTRY: Very nice. Quiet entertaining for a couple of ugly white worms. You may pass.
LS: Why thank you!
MA: I still have no clue what’s going on. What was with the Mexican jumping bean routine?
LS: Just smile as we pass by.
(LS and MA enter the walls of a ruined city)
LS: That was close. Now back to our review.
Carter finds an incubation chamber in the middle of the desert where eggs are hatching and is immediately confronted by strange, giant, green beings with four arms (six limbs in all) and tusks, called Tharks. The Tharks are a warrior race and they almost look like giant praying mantises at times. They are much larger than puny little John Carter, and yet he is able to fight them man-to-man without any problem. The Tharks are led by Tars Tarkas (a CGI character voiced by Willem Dafoe), who takes a liking to this odd stranger, and who is captivated by Carter’s ability to jump extremely high. The Tharks at first take Carter prisoner, but he eventually becomes like one of their own.
In JOHN CARTER, the four-armed Tharks look a bit too "cute." Disney should have gone with more menacing faces for them, instead of "Disneyfying" them.
But the Tharks are not the only species on Barsoom. There is also a race of red, humanoid creatures, who make up the warring cities of Helium and Zodanga. Oh, and chieftains in all the tribes – humanoid and Thark – are called jeddacks (or jeds). Sound familiar? Sounds an awful lot like the “jedis” that would come several decades later. The red human-like species is more advanced and fights most of their battles in the air, using large flying crafts – while the Tharks are more like barbarians and fight on the ground, using swords and long-barreled rifles.
LS: The princess of Helium is Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins), and she is also a scientist. Her father (and Jeddack of Helium) Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds, who has been in tons of movies lately, most recently in last year’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY) has promised her to the Jed of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West, whom a lot of people will recognize as McNulty from the excellent HBO series THE WIRE (2002 – 2008), and he was also the villain Jigsaw in PUNISHER WAR ZONE, 2008) in order to broker peace. The reason why Tardos Mors is willing to sacrifice his daughter is because Sab Than has access to the power of the “Ninth Ray” a powerful force that, in the right hands can offer the planet an unlimited power source, but in the wrong hands, like Sab Than’s, can be a most deadly weapon. In Sab Than’s case, he gets the weapon from a Thern (Mark Strong), one of a race of immortal beings who try to control the fate of the planet by interfering when it suits them. Their science is so advanced, they would probably be looked on as gods by the other inhabitants of Barsoom. They can also transform to look like anyone else they want to, to escape detection. The Therns are pretty much the bad guys of the movie. One of them is the creature who transported Carter to Mars in the first place! It’s interesting to note that in Burroughs’ work, they didn’t appear until the third book in the series, The Warlord of Mars.
The villainous Therns are able to change their appearance at will to avoid detection.
MA: This synopsis is almost as boring as the movie!
LS: Deja Thoris tries to escape in the middle of an air battle with Zodanga forces (captained by Sab Than, her intended husband!) and is almost killed. But she is saved from an almost fatal fall by John Carter, who leaps to her rescue. The rest of the movie is about the warring factions on Mars, John Carter’s rise as a warrior among the people of Barsoom and his attempts to make Deja Thoris his bride (something he has to battle pretty much all of Barsoom for, if he wants to stand a chance), and the efforts of Carter and the people of Helium to defeat both the villainous Sab Than and the treacherous Therns.
Is that enough plot for you?
MA: Too much.
LS: The movie is both faithful to Burroughs’ original novel in a lot of places, and changes things in other aspects where the screenwriters wanted to push the movie more in the direction of romance and intrigue. I didn’t agree with all of the changes, but for the most part the movie is in the spirit of the original books.
I was not sure what to expect here, because the movie was made by Disney, and there are some “Disney-fied” touches here and there, including the cute Thark babies early on, the fact that adult Tharks themselves have faces that are a bit too “cute” for my tastes (where they could have been much more menacing) and the playing up of the puppy dog aspects of Woola, the devoted “pet” of Carter’s which is a calot – a big creature that is kind of a cross between a dog and a giant frog. These cute touches are obviously to smooth off some of the rough edges of the story and appeal to a wider audience. But for the most part, the movie seems more concerned with sticking with Burroughs’ vision and keeping things, at heart, an adventure tale—they also clearly would love to turn this movie into part of a franchise—than homogenizing everything to fit the Disney image. Which is a relief. If it had been a completely Disneyfied version and rated G (it’s rated PG-13), it probably would have ruined the movie.
MA: See, I disagree. I thought this one was very Disneyfied. In fact, it felt like one of those older Disney adventures that they used to make, films like SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960) and ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975).
LS: You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s nothing like those movies. This movie is an epic.
MA: An epic piece of fluff, but that’s about it.
This one’s got Disney written all over it. Like you said, there was the cute Woola, the look of the Tharks, and to me, the entire movie played it safe. I felt like it was rated G. Not that this is a bad thing, but I didn’t think this movie had much of an edge to it.
(LS and MA are stopped by a THERN who suddenly materializes before them. He looks like a blue bald guy in robes)
THERN: What manner of creature are you two?
LS: We are from Earth. Jarsoom, to you. And we’re here reviewing the movie JOHN CARTER.
MA: Yeah. I ‘m just shocked I can understand this guy.
THERN: You two threaten my plans here on Barsoom. You must be eliminated.
(LS removes his hood to reveal his bald head)
LS: I too am a Thern, and I will disintegrate you if you do not leave immediately.
(THERN screams and teleports away)
MA: I have to admit, you’re finally handy for a change.
LS: I know the ways of Barsoom, that’s all.
MA: Yeah, stop congratulating yourself and just finish up the review. I’m getting hungry, and I heard Martian food is horrendous.
LS: It is kind of bland. Okay, where was I? Oh yeah.
There are also bookend storylines that occur years after Carter’s trip to Mars, concerning Carter’s untimely death on Earth and his leaving his inheritance to his nephew, who just happens to be a young writer named Edgar Rice Burroughs. At first, I thought this beginning and end part were unnecessary and annoying, but the end part does make sense with the rest of the story, justifying their insertion, I guess.
Considering that more than half of the characters in the movie are CGI creations (it reminded me of AVATAR in this regard), and most of the locations were green-screened, JOHN CARTER actually looks pretty good (and I normally hate CGI).
MA: It looks OK. I wasn’t that impressed.
LS: I had a good time with this one. I even saw it in IMAX and 3D, and while I think the extra expense wasn’t worth it (the 3D effects are a little better than most of the 3D movies I’ve seen lately, though) I still enjoyed the movie.
MA: I chose to see this one in 2D, for obvious reasons, chief amongst them is I’m tired of paying extra money for minimal effects. I like 3D effects, but I don’t want to pay extra for them.
LS: I give JOHN CARTER three and a half knives.
MA: You liked this one WAY more than I did, which makes sense, since you’re a fan of the books.
I just couldn’t get into this movie. JOHN CARTER proved to be exactly what I expected it to be: a big budget blockbuster without teeth. This one just never won me over.
I’ll start with the cast. You liked Taylor Kitsch at John Carter? I thought he was dull, and for the most part, he put me to sleep. I’m sure John Carter is a fascinating literary character, but in this movie, he’s not very interesting. Part of it is the character is known in the story as a great soldier, but we don’t see him use his military knowledge on Mars. Instead, he just leaps around and fights like a crazy person. The other part is Kitsch. He doesn’t add any sort of nuance or edge to the character. He’s no Christopher Reeve, Robert Downey Jr., nor even Tobey Maguire. They all put their personal stamp on their characters. Kitsch doesn’t.
Lynn Collins as Princess Deja Thoris also didn’t wow me. So, it’s hard for me to enjoy a movie when its two leads are less enjoyable than Woola, the alien dog!
LS: I liked Collins in the role, but I have to admit, she didn’t completely wow me either. But I disagree about Kitsch. He wasn’t up there with Reeve and Downey, but he was just fine in the role, bringing just the right amount of swagger and earnestness of a bygone era. The original books weren’t meant to be great literature – they were escapist fantasy and high adventure. And Kitsch is just fine.
Collins does a good job of playing Thoris as a smart woman, but in the book she just seemed more feisty and beautiful. Collins was a bit of a letdown to me in the role. She seemed too much of a brainy scientist and not enough of a “warrior princess of Mars.”
MA: I actually did enjoy the early scenes in JOHN CARTER, before he gets to Mars, scenes in the 1860s during the Civil War era. But once he gets to Mars, I just didn’t buy the film’s fantasy.
LS: I wasn’t as interested in that early stuff, and thought the whole thing about the army capturing him and trying to force him to fight for them again was kind of dumb (and it wasn’t from the book, so you can’t blame Burroughs). That whole sequence is completely different from the novel. But it was cool to see Brian Cranston from BREAKING BAD as Colonel Powell, even if I found that storyline to be kind of lame.
MA: The scenes with the warring Martian civilizations reminded me too much of FLASH GORDON, and I didn’t care one way or the other which side won the battle. I didn’t care for any of these characters. They were all as exciting as THOR and his god buddies, or Zeus and his CLASH OF THE TITANS pals. I couldn’t care less about these folks.
While I did enjoy the CGI Tharks, they were awfully STAR WARS-like. In fact, the entire look of this movie reminded me of the last three installments of George Lucas’ STAR WARS saga, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, since I’m not a big fan of those last three movies.
LS: I thought it was better than the last three STAR WARS movies.
MA: And I thought the action scenes were all rather boring, nothing I hadn’t seen before.
Overall, JOHN CARTER is a fairly entertaining movie, because it plays like a family-friendly Disney adventure, colorful and pleasant.
This should come as no surprise, as director Andrew Stanton directed a couple of Disney/Pixar hits, WALL-E (2008) and FINDING NEMO (2003). I’m really surprised to hear you say you didn’t think this movie was too Disneyfied, because as I watched this film, that’s all I could think of.
The screenplay by director Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon might have been faithful to much of the source material, as you said, but it doesn’t quite cut it as top-notch movie material. I thought the characters were bland and barely memorable, the story blah, and the dialogue forgettable.
Fans of the John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs like yourself, and children— now that’s a bizarre combination! —will probably find JOHN CARTER enjoyable. The rest of us will be hoping to hop on the nearest teleportation device and get back to Earth ASAP.
I give JOHN CARTER two knives.
And speaking of getting back to Earth, now that we’re done, how about it? Let’s get out of here and head back home.
LS: I kinda like it here.
MA: Well, you can stay here on Boombah as long as you want. I’m going home.
LS: Barsoom! Not Boombah!
MA: Boombah, Barsoom, what’s the difference? It still sounds like words used on the Adam West BATMAN TV show (1966 – 1968) during their fight scenes. POW! BAM! BARSOOM! I suppose those scenes were influenced by John Carter as well?
LS: You’re a pain.
MA: That’s why we get along so well.
LS: We get along?
MA: Can we get just go home?
LS: You might want to apologize first.
MA: Apologize? To who?
LS: To them. (Points over MA’s shoulder. Behind them stand a horde of Tharks.) You insulted their home world.
MA: You didn’t tell me they were standing behind me. Nice of you to have my back!
LS: As always.
MA (to Tharks): Don’t take it personally. I was just poking fun at the word Barsoom. I wasn’t insulting your home world.
THARK: We think otherwise. We think you should be punished. Painfully.
MA (points to LS): I have to review movies with him every week. Isn’t that punishment enough?
THARK: No. There must be more.
(Cut to LS giving a review of another new movie, standing before a vast audience of Tharks, while MA sits next to him, tied up with a gag in his mouth. As LS speaks, he asks MA for his opinion, and then laughs when MA can’t respond. The audience of Tharks applauds raucously.)
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives JOHN CARTER ~ two knives!
LL Soares gives JOHN CARTER ~three and a half knives.