“John Carter”: a brief review, with spoilers

| March 10, 2012

I first read “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs early in high school, over 40 years ago. I loved the novel and enjoyed the ten (yes, ten) that followed, though none were quite as good or as wildly romantic. So I’ve followed with interest over the past several years the various attempts to bring it to the screen. Today, at last, I got to see “John Carter”, Andrew Stanton’s vision of ERB’s novels.

The effort: a good solid “B”, though given the various budget estimates for the film, that’s probably not good enough. Disney must be hoping and praying for a massive international market, because the film — which clocks in at 2:19 — will most likely not make its costs back here in the US. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised, but I suspect it won’t cross $150 million (and maybe not $100 million) domestically.

The film, as a film, has a beautiful realization of ERB’s Barsoom (the locals’ name for Mars). But it suffers from three major faults. The first, pointed out over i09 yesterday, is that it has too many stories going on. The second is that it takes too long to get to Mars. The third is that it changes John Carter from a swashbuckling, devil-may-care, Errol Flynn-type character to a angsty, angry, semi-tragic figure. (It also changes Dejah Thoris — the princess of Mars — from a warrior princess to a warrior scientist princess, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. IMHO.) There are a few minor faults as well, some of which I’ll touch upon.

All three major faults are related. The opening sequence — both involving ERB’s receipt of Carter’s diary after his untimely ‘death’ and Carter’s discovery of the mysterious cave — could have been shortened by a good 10 minutes at least, and the movie would have been better for it. Likewise, the whole set of flashbacks regarding Carter’s wife and child (which he doesn’t have in the books) could have been excised, which would have dropped another few minutes at least. And, frankly, Carter would have been a more likeable and sympathetic character without the whole fight-in-the-calvary-post sequence and wife-and-child flashbacks. What should have been a fun and entertaining film too often becomes, in my wife’s one-word criticism, “ponderous”.  And, frankly, they should have introduced Dejah Thoris earlier and without the extended back-story-and-battle.

As for the minor faults, I don’t mind at all how they changed the Therns or the means by which Carter gets to and from Mars — it works better for a modern audience and gives a scientific twist to what was frankly more supernatural in ERB’s novels. But then they blew it by making Carter’s leaps and strength way out of proportion to what he could actually do in a 1/3-earth-gravity situation. Burroughs himself is guilty of this — he describes Carter’s first leap under Martian gravity as carrying him “fully thirty feet into the air and [landing] a hundred feet from my pursuers.” But the movie carries it far beyond that, with Carter making even more impossibly long and high leaps, at times while catching or carrying others. Woola (the calot) was also way too fast, and the moons of Mars were too large and too close together.

I know that Andrew Stanton, the director, has plans laid out for two more films, but I don’t think we’ll see them. And Stanton won’t come out of this looking good, either.

Spoilers, such as they are, after the jump. In the meantime, here are some thoughts of mine on how the film could have been better. That post also highlights what appears to be a massive chronology/continuity flaw in the film.

SPOILERS, more or less

The very ending — when Carter fakes his own death and draws Matai Shang to his tomb in order to (a) kill him and (b) get the medallion Carter needs to return to Mars — is a nice twist. But I’m still not sure it needed the long on-Earth prelude at the start of the movie.

That’s about all I can think of as a spoilers.  After all, the novel has been around for 100 years or so. 🙂  ..bruce w..

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Category: Main, Movies, Reviews

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.