Why You Should See JOHN CARTER (OF MARS)

Go see John Carter.

Why? Because it’s a much better film than any of the critics would have you believe. Because it’s a huge epic film based on the story that inspired a hundred years of swashbuckling science fiction. Because it’s the first live-action movie by Oscar-winner Andrew Stanton.

And because it’s fun.

JPH: Mr. Harvey and I have both seen it, and herein lies our collective thoughts on the movie. For those of you who only think John Carter was a character in the NBC show “ER”, then here’s a primer for you to read first and then come back here.

Walt Disney Pictures, for whatever reasons there may be, has failed to figure out this picture. The marketing shows this in stark relief, and blame can be spread around to a number of folks. But ultimately, Disney doesn’t know what they have in their hands, and that failing may ultimately spell the demise of the sequels.

It’s a lesson in Marketing 101 – Know Your Product. John Carter is a 1930s Republic serial with 21st century CG effects. On the one hand, I find it really hard to believe that Stanton would make such a huge misstep in the marketing decisions that have been laid at his feet. The movie itself shows that he has a very clear understanding of this story and the world John Carter inhabits. For Stanton to market this movie so horribly just feels… somewhat off.

Given the stories swirling around this picture, I’m more inclined to believe that the Disney execs who inherited John Carter actually want it to fail. Hollywood politics being what they are, this kind of thing happens all the time. New executives don’t want former executives to get credit for any kind of success that happens after they’re gone. Very likely, the current regime saw this movie as something to get past as quickly as possible.

TH: Well, I think there’s probably enough blame to go around, as Stanton has given us plenty of his own words on the subject, but whoever ultimately will fall on their sword here, the simple fact is this: Mistakes were made that pretty much made potential audiences ask “Why do I want to see this?”, and as far as the marketing went, the answer was “Um…”

Not to say I don’t love the Peter Gabriel song they used in the first trailer, but for an action film based on the pulps, well, not the most logical of choices. The mood didn’t exactly imply swashbuckling alien adventures. Most damaging, in my opinion, was the title itself… let’s face it, John Carter doesn’t say much. John Carter of Mars, well, that says a lot, and if those behind the advertising had only kept it… but such was not to be. 

Is that the Disney marketing department behind our hero?

JPH: The pre-release press coverage didn’t help, either. Focused on the troubles of the film, focused on Stanton’s background in animation and the assumption that he was in over his head with live-action (the reshoots being a big indicator of that for them), the critics were quick to jump on the “John Carter is broken” meme, which completely ignores the fact that it’s the number one movie all over the world – except in the US.

Which is why it’s incumbent upon us to cut through that clutter like a Confederate soldier cutting through a white ape.

Author Max Allan Collins had this to say about the movie on his blog:

We encounter strange, fully delineated creatures and cultures, sometimes humorous, other times horrific, in this heartfelt piece of filmmaking. Epic and intimate, JOHN CARTER is faithful to its influential source material, and despite what you’ve heard, not at all hard to follow…

And this is just one of many places where movie-goers are reacting very positively:


Now, then, we will venture forth into the reasons why the Disney film John Carter is worth placing your collective posteriors in the plush cushioned seats at your local cineplex instead of waiting for it to come to home video.

1. The Story

JPH:  As we’ve discussed before, the movie is based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who created Tarzan. In this introduction to Captain Carter, we meet the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium, a major city on the planet Barsoom. This is the red planet we know as Mars.

Carter’s adventures take him from being a prisoner of the Tharks, to hero of the planet saving the damsel in distress – who is quite capable of wielding a sword of her own. It’s pulp fiction from the heyday of pulps. Ultimately, it’s a swash-buckling romance.

A Princess of Mars first appeared in serial form in 1912 under the title “Under the Moons of Mars” and gave us John Carter, a character that would influence Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, and countless others.

Andrew Stanton and his team of writers have served up a pretty faithful adaptation of Burroughs’ work, with the addition of the Therns from later books serving as the connecting thread into the planned sequels. The creative liberties are minimal, which is why this movie works on several levels. Instead of modernizing the story, instead of looking at the scientific fact of the 21st century, the film maintains the integrity of the original Barsoom novels – with aliens and white apes and a breathable atmosphere and flying craft on Mars.

TH: Of course for the purists out there, one must point out some changes will be noticeable to those who have read and loved the books. The good news is that they are clearly there to smooth out the story and prepare for continuing the story in later films. Remember that Burroughs wrote A Princess Of Mars to be serialized, and it’s very episodic. That works fine on the page, but on the screen, you need a storyline that flows.

With Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and Mark Andrews, Stanton has written a script that brings us into the world of Barsoom, gives the characters the depth they need for us to care about them, and tells a gripping tale. Are some characters from later books brought into this film? Sure. Are some characters and events from the book cut out or combined? Of course. That always happens when adapting a book into a film. But is the essence there, is the love of the original material and the respect to adapt it there? Yes it is.

2. The Synthetics

JPH:  The CG animation is very well-done, and through most of the picture, it’s easy to forget these characters are made of pixels. There’s real emotion in the performances, which should be credited not only to the actors in the roles, but also the animators creating the look of the characters.

The Thark babies needed a little more render time, but other than that, I was very impressed with the animation work. And the matte painting work was done in the finest tradition of Ralph McQuarrie and his contemporaries back in the day when artists were actually making matte paintings.

Most of us who have read the Barsoom books, have an idea of how it should look. This movie takes that and runs with it, giving us a great Martian landscape to serve as the canvas for the story of a Confederate soldier and his princess.

TH: Special note should be made of the production design as well, because the Barsoomian technology and architecture is wonderfully alien and beautiful, and the CG is beautiful. Whether it’s the flying ships or the Thark settlement, the walking city of Zodanga or the towers of Helium, real thought has gone into making a unique world here, one that actually looks lived in.

Too often CG environments look too clean (I’m looking at you and the prequels, Mr. Lucas), and let’s face it, when you create a world, practical sets can be really hard to pull off beyond a certain point. Not so here. Obviously practical sets were built, but the CG expanding of those sets is flawless, and again, they built a world, one you can believe the characters live in.

3. The Scenery

JPH:  John Carter takes Utah and New Mexico and turns them into the Red Planet in such a strikingly beautiful way, incorporating the flatlands and terrain that should be familiar territory and translating it into a world we’ve never seen before. This is the Mars of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

And let’s not forget Lynn Collins. She’s a stunning Dejah Thoris, with her dark complexion and ice blue eyes, made all the more enticing by the wardrobe. It’s a Cecil B. deMille production. Stanton clearly has studied the classics and the pulps to evoke a sense of nostalgic storytelling.

4. The Stunts

JPH: Carter was the first Superman. With his leaps and bounds, he had abilities beyond those of mortal men long before Kal-El was sent to Earth. I wonder if Siegel & Shuster read Burroughs…

The sword-play is choreographed and executed well, especially considering some of these swordsmen are dealing with extra limbs. I never noticed any chocky-blocky effects that failed to blend in with the in-camera live-action material.

And yes, the Wilhelm Scream is in there.

TH: But of course, why shouldn’t it be?

It’s pretty much all here folks: Fleeing cavalry and Apaches on horseback, daring sword fights with dozens of combatants, even a scene where Carter alone faces hundreds of Tharks in what should be a suicidal last stand. And most important? It’s shot in such a way that you can tell what’s going on. Too often, while trying to get across the chaos of battle, filmmakers will bring us so close to the action that it all becomes a blur. Here Stanton often pulls back, giving a sense of scale and an odd grandeur to the battle scenes, and the film benefits from it. It’s clearly something that he brings over from the animation world, and when dealing with this kind of story, it’s certainly the right choice.

5. Woola

JPH: From the moment he first appears, Woola is a real animal. I watched this Martian equivalent of a dog, and I swear the animators reviewed tape of my old fat beagle Peaches.

This is a fully realized animal, with emotions and reactions to the stuff going on around him. Not a fuzzy Fraggle or Jar-Jar or something out of Syfy Saturday Night Movies. Woola is in the space (OK, I know he’s not in the space). His movement and mannerisms work. They just work.

6. The Performances

TH: Yes, we let Woola go first, but make no mistake, it’s the performances that make or break a film like this. All the spectacle in the world, all the CGI money can buy will fall flat if you don’t believe in the characters.

Taylor Kitsch is our titular hero, and convincingly gives us a man who is tired of war and the cost it brings, thrust into a world where everyone wants him to take up arms again. You may know him from “Friday Night Lights”, or this may be the first time you’ve seen him, but casting him was an excellent choice. John Carter has to be a man who almost reluctantly becomes a hero, and Kitsch takes us on that journey the right way. From his southern mannerisms and bitter memories of his loss, to his eventual embrace of his new world, here is a John Carter both recognizable to the reader and new and alive for the film audience.

As Jason said, Lynn Collins is stunning as Dejah Thoris, but make no mistake, this Princess of Mars is not just a pretty face. A teacher, a scientist and a woman who wields a sword as well as any man, Dejah is far from just a damsel in distress. Here is a strong-willed female character that cheerfully defies the standard clichés of the Sword and Science genres, and if you want more strong roles for women in science fiction, well, let me introduce you to Miss Collins. In many ways her performance anchors the film, and she is wonderful to watch. Collins has expressed an interest in playing Wonder Woman, and based on this? I say we let her.

Willem Defoe. Samantha Morton. Thomas Haden Church. You won’t see their faces in John Carter, but their voices bring Tars Tarkas, Sola and Tal Hajus to life beneath the impressive animation. The voice casting is wonderful here, with all three of these critical characters played by wonderful actors whose voices, while recognizable, are not so distinctive as to distract. Defoe’s Tars Tarkas is especially good, and for a character that would be easy to make all too much the warrior cliché, he gives a depth and humor that really works.

Then there’s our villains. First we have Dominic West as Sab Than, whose dreams of conquest and pursuit of Dejah Thoris will being him into the path of a certain Earthman. West does extremely well with what he has here, both viscous and dryly funny. The only downside is that if anything, his Than is a touch underwritten, and you want to see more from him.

And if there is a reason for Than being a little light, it’s because he’s in the shadow of Mark Strong’s Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns. Strong has made a career of playing the villain of late, and you probably know him from Sherlock Holmes or Green Lantern. Here he certainly brings that dry delivery and sardonic charm to the front of his Shang, a mysterious priest of an order with a larger agenda than first appears.

Appearances from Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston and others give the secondary characters strong life, and if you listen closely, you might catch the voice work of David Schwimmer and Jon Favreau. Hinds plays Thoris’ father, the leader of Helium, and brings the necessary weight and gravitas to the part, although I would have liked more of him and Purefoy’s Kantos Kan. It’s always good to have characters aside from your main ones that are interesting, and one would think we’d see more of them in any future films.

But lest you think we are blinded by our own love of the material and the adaptation, there are a few areas where the film does have some issues. On balance, they pale next to what the film does right, but still, they’re there. As stated above, Dominic West’s Sab Than gets less time than he probably should as one of the two main villains, and while Strong’s Matai Shang is interesting and mysterious, the mystery of the character, clearly meant to be expanded on in later films, may leave some viewers with more questions than they like.

JPH: I like that we start off in a Western with Cranston playing a George Custer type. It’s very reminiscent of Dances With Wolves or The Searchers in its style, and Cranston brings just the right mix of sage experience and war-weariness to the role.

TH: One of the criticisms a lot of reviewers have had is the amount of story this film covers, and for some it’s too much. Yes, there is a LOT of information here, about a world that is quite unfamiliar, but it’s there for a reason, and the filmmakers are trusting their audience to follow along. That’s something I wish more of them did, and if you let yourself be immersed in the world of John Carter of Mars, I think you’ll find that it’s easier going than it first appears. There are a few pacing issues, but John Carter follows the Ten Minute Rule for the most part, and even when the film slows down, it remains interesting.

JPH: For those who do not know the Ten Minute Rule – first, shame on you. The Ten Minute Rule is story structure left over from the days of the old serials of early Hollywood. Each chapter in something like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers was about ten minutes long, ending in a cliffhanger for next week. So every ten minutes you have a beginning, middle and end story arc. This format is followed by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, along with Tintin and others that were influenced by the Republic and Universal serials.

TH: Another criticism is that “We’ve seen it all before.” Well, yes and no. Yes, film after film that owes debt to the writing of Burroughs, acknowledged or not, has had scenes much like those you see here. It is something of familiar ground, even if it comes from something that actually came long before. But the style and the character of the film are engaging and fun, and even if the story isn’t groundbreaking, it’s done with respect for the source material and the audience.

I liked this movie. I do know the source material, and I wondered how they would make it live and breathe, and I was prepared to be a far harsher critic of this film. I am very happy I didn’t have to be, because for a couple of hours I got to be a kid again, reveling in the world of Barsoom, fighting alongside Tars Tarkas, racing to save Dejah Thoris from the clutches of an evil warlord. I don’t get to do that much these days.

JPH: It’s a Western. It’s Lawrence of Arabia for the pulps. It’s a fun epic that many people are going to miss because they listen to critics.

Go see John Carter.

[Official Movie Site Here]     [Read A Princess of Mars in our Library]

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

19 thoughts on “Why You Should See JOHN CARTER (OF MARS)

  • March 22, 2012 at 11:49 pm
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    Your analysis is right on target. John Carter is a terrific film and I am quite sad that people didn’t see it. We can hope that the foreign markets will be large enough to justify a sequel, but if not, I will be happy knowing I got to see Barsoom on the big screen at least once.

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  • March 28, 2012 at 2:31 am
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    after see this movie what do think about this movie?

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    • March 28, 2012 at 9:59 am
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      Well, that’s kind of the point of the article, really. We did see it, and we think you should, too.

      Reply
  • April 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm
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    Very nice article guys and I agree with you completely! I can only add that I’ve seen in multiple times and that it gets better and better with repeated viewings. Disney has really blown this one – they’ve squandered what had the potential to be their next great franchise by either incompetent marketing or (as you suggest and I think I agree) deliberate indifference and a determination that the movie was going to fail no matter what. Too bad – what these guys didn’t realize is that if they’d gotten behind the movie and helped it succeed they would have reaped the benefit of the success in making the sequels. Very short sighted.

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  • June 16, 2012 at 7:45 am
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    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Now that John Carter is on DVD/Blu-Ray and the average America will have a chance to check it out for themselves, I really hope they come across fine articles like this, written by people who actually get it, and the truth about this amazing film is shared by the masses. It is my sincerest wish that a sequel or two is greenlit. Does Disney have the balls and brains to come clean, admit that THEY seriously dropped the ball, and greenlight the rest of the films in this series? If not, will they please step the F back and let a studio, one that can see that they left a pile of gold on the table, make these further films? The Therns can’t win! Take me back to Barsoom ASAP! http://www.johncartertwo.com

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  • June 16, 2012 at 7:58 am
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    Great article of an awesome, underappreciated movie. JOHN CARTER deserves an audience, it was definitely one of the best movies I have had the pleasure to enjoy this year!

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  • June 16, 2012 at 8:11 am
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    Great article and I LOVED John Carter!! I wish more people had given it a chance in theaters instead of listing to critics. Now that many are finally seeing it on DVD/Bluray, there are LOADS who wish they’d seen it on the big screen. I knew that was going to happen, too! Now, if disk sales can be high enough to get our sequels made, I’ll be a VERY happy Jasoomian! I want to go Back to Barsoom!!!

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  • June 16, 2012 at 9:01 am
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    I love John Carter The movie and so did my 9yr son And my 12yrs old Daughter . Give it a chance and you will love it to :).

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  • June 16, 2012 at 9:09 am
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    Thank you for a wonderful review of John Carter! I too have seen this movie mutiple times. It was an exceptional movie and journey and one I wanted to go back to time and time again. If Disney had marketed and advertised this movie correctly, if people had known what John Carter was about, this movie would have had box office success! Thankfully, I didn’t listen to negative reviews and went to see this movie! Now it is Number 1 in DVD sales!! Everyone give John Carter a chance on DVD. Buy the DVD and you too will soon want to go Back to Barsoom with thousands and thousands of fans from all over the world! Thank you again for a GREAT review of this absolutely fantastic movie – John Carter!

    Reply
  • June 16, 2012 at 9:43 am
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    When I first heard the name “John Carter” in a surprise preview trailer at the movie house, I knew EXACTLY what the movie would be about – and I was EXCITED! But then, I had read every Ace printing of Burrough’s material I could get my hands on in junior high school back in the early 60s. I always wondered why they left off the “Of Mars” part of the title, but was happy to go see it. And I was pleased that earlier attempts at creating such a movie had withered because it couldn’t have been done (well) until the CG technology we have today. (Can you imagine a claymation version?!) I insisted that my wife read “Princess”, “Gods” and “Warlord” to prepare for the movie rather than try to explain all the elements – and why I was such a fan. She is now also a fan and we had a great time watching the movie. Very disappointed that Disney didn’t get fully behind this. “Brave” is “nice”, but “John Carter” is EPIC!

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  • June 16, 2012 at 10:02 am
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    Great review!!!!! It is so good and dare I say refreshing to find a reviewer who really not only appreciates the film for what it is, but so rightly “gets” it! I loved the film and saw it three times, which is something I never do. It brought me back to when I was a kid watching those grand old school “B” films that Hollywood just no longer makes. If ever there is a film that deserves a sequel it is this one! Bravo for your article, I shall be sharing it with my friends!

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  • June 16, 2012 at 10:59 am
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    I loved John Carter, the movie, and think its the kind of movie that I’ll enjoy over and over for the rest of my life. It’s that good. Thank you for your wonderful and spot on review.

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  • June 16, 2012 at 12:15 pm
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    Jason, A great write-up and right on point! “John Carter” is a fun and entertaining movie, and a perfect depiction of it’s pulp source material, Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Barsoom.” Director Andrew Stanton has created a perfect movie for its genre. Although not widely recognized as such – or at least not yet – this is a perfect movie in the same sense that Star Wars is a perfect movie in the space opera genre!

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and entirely accurate write-up for “John Carter.”

    Reply
  • June 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm
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    Thanks, all, for the positive feedback! Feel free to share our JOHN CARTER articles with your circles. Maybe DVD/Blu-Ray sales will convince the suits that sequels would be a good idea.

    Reply
  • June 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm
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    Thank you Jason P. Hunt for such a positive review. It is beyond my understanding how this film got labelled a “flop”. Stanton is a genius and brought Burroughs’ vision of Barsoom to life. I have a request for Disney: Take Us Back To Barsoom!

    Reply
  • June 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm
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    I was lucky enough to see this in IMAX and came out dazed and smiling with an overwhelming urge to see it again and wanting a sequel. I had no idea what the movie was about, didn’t know its source material or even who Edgar Rice Burroughs was, but I do now. I am still lucky because now I own the Blu Ray dvd and have watched it several times since june 5, 2012. I also listen to the audio commentary along with the movie. You can tell this was a labor of love for those involved making it. Hey Andrew Stanton good job, Steve Jobs would have loved it as would Walt Disney himself. This under appreciated movie may grow some legs yet. Take me back to Barsoom

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  • June 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm
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    Superb film, one of my favourites!

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  • June 28, 2012 at 11:29 am
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    Excellent review and I agree wholeheartedly. I loved this movie and saw it six times in the theater. It is a masterpiece of planning and presentation. It has some faults but they are few in comparison to the overall movie. I was on Barsoom. You are spot on describing Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She was fantastic and the blue eyes were hypnotic. How Carter lasted as long as he did before he finally decides to aid her is beyond me. But this is such an excellent film I could watch it over and over again and never tire of it. The DVD is good, I have the Blu Ray, but no machine to play it on yet. John Carter is easily the best picture of 2012. Andrew Stanton did know his source material and went to great lengths to make a wonderful film. Sola (Samantha Morton) is so believeable that my wife always felt she was a real character and not a cgi voiced creation. Woola always looked real and Barsoom looked old and dying. The insect like ships flying on light were great imagination. In ending, I liked how they slowly developed the chemistry between John Carter and Dejah Thoris and how it went from her believing him mad but wanting his help to believing in him and falling in love. The scene where she thinks he left for earth is so touching, and her performance is so nuanced. She is an excellent actress comfortable with a sword and comfortable playing Portia in A Merchant of Vencie. She is just fantastic and is the center of most scenes when she is present. Great movie and great review.

    Reply

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