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Film Reviews

There’s plenty of life on Mars in Disney’s ‘John Carter’

A human being arrives suddenly on alien world, befriends a savage but honorable native tribe, hooks up with a badass native woman, and saves the day with his superior abilities and noble courage.

So, John Carter has the same plot as Dune.

And Stargate. And Avatar. And any other number of stories from that particular branch of genre fiction once known as the Planetary Romance. But John Carter, the Warlord of Mars, was there first, the granddaddy of them all: appearing in the pages of All-Story Magazine under the title of “Under the Moons of Mars” exactly one hundred years ago, the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal novel A Princess of Mars cannot be easily overestimated. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Superman and several generations’ worth of otherworldly fantasies walk in the footsteps of this Gentleman from Virginia-turned-interplanetary savior.

Make that a NAKED Gentleman from Virginia-turned-interplanetary savior.

A Southern Cavalry officer during the Civil War, former Captain John Carter (played in Disney’s film version by Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch) is a shell-shocked husk of the man he once was, searching for gold in the wilds of 1880s New Mexico, when he’s caught in the conflict between the U.S. Army and the Apache. While attempting to rescue a jingoistic colonel (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), Carter stumbles into a remote passage between worlds, and onto the desiccated surface of the distant planet Barsoom – known on Earth as our neighboring world, Mars.

With Mars having only a third of the surface gravity of our home planet, the dislocated Earthman soon finds himself capable of superhuman feats, such as leaping far into the air (like the Golden Age Superman) and felling much larger opponents with a single blow, much to the amazement and consternation of the alien warlord – or “Jeddak” – Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). With Carter’s arrival on Barsoom, a planet-wide conflict reaches its climax, and his presence as a wild card upsets the plans of the wicked Sab Than (Dominic West) and the mysterious Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong).

Neither a shirt- nor pants-wearing people these Martians be.

While the book series has been incredibly and consistently popular among science fiction and fantasy readers over the last century, the lavishness of Burroughs’ imagination made a straight-up film adaptation of his adventures difficult at best. As far back as the 1930s there were attempts to bring the Mars series to the screen, but while imitators such as Flash Gordon became industries unto themselves, the John Carter books never really had that sort of cross-platform success.

On the Depression-era movie screen, the Lion Men of Flash Gordon’s Mongo were simply portrayed by thickly-bearded actors, but how do you simulate armies of 12-foot, six-limbed, green-skinned Tharks with pre-CGI film technology? In the hands of others, Burroughs’ Tharks would become the aforementioned Lion Men of Flash Gordon, Star Trek’s Klingons, the Fremen of Dune, Star Wars’ Tusken Raiders, and eventually James Cameron’s blue-skinned Na’vi. Practically and financially, it was far easier to film the Earth-bound scenario of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ second novel (also 1912), and the primary source of his wealth and fame thereafter.

Indeed, the cinema buck on A Princess of Mars – the first installment of what eventually became an 11-book series – kept getting passed around over the years, though it fell through some interesting hands along the way, including those of directors Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City).

Plus, they had to wait for Taylor Kitsch’s biceps to be born.

Enter Pixar Studios’ Andrew Stanton, whose credits read like a laundry list of Disney’s most successful products: Director of Wall*E and Finding Nemo, co-director on A Bug’s Life, writer on all the Toy Story films, etc.  Stanton brings with him screenwriters Mark Andrews (also of Pixar fame) and Michael Chabon (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) to help smooth out the rough edges of Burroughs’ original, episodic serial.

Though accused of being an unwieldy pile of excess – sight unseen – by entertainment writers slavishly following the established narrative that the film is a fiasco of Ishtar-ian proportions, John Carter is, in all honesty, a much leaner, meaner machine that any of the entries in Disney’s grotesquely bloated and creatively bankrupt Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which seems to get along exclusively on the basis of Johnny Depp’s considerable, if goofy, charm.

While no Depp in the goofiness department, John Carter star Kitsch has considerable charm of his own, deftly holding his own against veteran scenery-chewer Dafoe and Carter’s scene-stealing alien “dog,” the ingratiating Woola.

WOOLA!

The result is fun and luxuriously fantastic, impressing the 10-year-old in me – who once feverishly wished himself transported bodily to the Mars of Burroughs’ breathless imaginings – enough to wring a few wistful tears from these eyes. During an early battle scene, when John Carter sprints and leaps far into the sky to snatch a plummeting Dejah Thoris out of thin air and from certain death, it soars with the ebullient joy that only a pure cinema experience can provide, triggering that rare, sublime thrill of deep pleasure tingling up the spine and into the brain.

While the story goes a little bit off the rails with multiple subplots toward the middle – the result of tying together disparate elements from the first three Mars books to establish a coherent mythology for the culture of Barsoom – it recovers impressively for a rousing, swashbuckling finale.

And while, yes, John Carter is somewhat of a throwback, it is not to the long-ago days of Buster Crabbe, Betty Grable and war bonds. Rather, it recalls the post-Star Wars era of science fiction and fantasy film adventures, the period in the late 1970s to mid-1980s when studios embraced fantastic storytelling, anything goes fashion, in a race to exploit the newly discovered sci-fi megabuck market, a scenario that led to some wild and wooly storytelling: Superman: The Movie, The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, Krull, The Last Starfighter, Enemy Mine, Dune, etc. – films with at least one foot planted firmly in sense-of-wonderland, which employed breadth of imagination instead of witless violence and ever-larger explosions to entertain the masses.

Don’t worry, masses – there’s plenty of violence and explosions, too.

Whether or not the film was a wise move financially for Disney is not really within my purview, and I find it both amusing and distressing how so many film critics suddenly find themselves cast in the role of marketing and business experts when it comes to productions tainted with the negative buzz of studio infighting, budget overruns and post-production reshoots, matters that often have nothing to do with the eventual quality of the final film (or lack thereof).

All things being equal, John Carter is no Ishtar, Howard the Duck or Cutthroat Island. It’s a magnificently realized fantasy world, one that may be out of its age, but a world worth visiting nonetheless – for a Saturday afternoon matinee, and a lifetime of dreams.

Phillip Lozano  3/14/2012

Extended clip from John Carter:

For more info on John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs, check out The John Carter of Mars Guide to Barsoom online.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “There’s plenty of life on Mars in Disney’s ‘John Carter’

  1. Thank you so much, Phillip Lozano, for unpacking this movie for me.

    As I’ve become increasingly wary of movie reviews and reviewers, it’s nice to hear your voice in the mix sorting out the pertinent details (and providing me with some Sci-Fi movie history! Sha-ZAM!)

    In addition, it’s also a joy to read a review that doesn’t sound world-weary or overstuffed with standard descriptions.

    I’m really, REALLY excited to see this film now. Nicely done, sir!

    Posted by Courtenay Bluebird | March 14, 2012, 12:26 pm
    • World-weariness is the exact thing I’ve been trying to avoid as of late, heh. This movie particular certainly does not deserve the torrent of cynical bile that has been dumped on it. I believe there’s a significant audience out there that, when they eventual see it on DVD or Netflix or whatever, will regret having paid too much attention to the snark and missed the opportunity to see it on the big screen with a big audience. The audience I saw it with certainly dug it.

      However, DON’T spend the extra $$$ for a 3D showing. “John Carter” was shot flat and converted to 3D after the fact – the results of which are not worth the extra expense.

      Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 14, 2012, 4:57 pm
  2. There should be something noted about the incredibly overt colonial/racist themes going on in this movie, making it very difficult to stomach while also prompting one to call Disney’s decision making abilities into question for a whole host of other reasons.

    Posted by Stefan Stackhouse | March 15, 2012, 12:08 am
    • I’m pretty sick of this nonsensical, white-liberal-guilt notion that we absolutely cannot depict a stratified culture in fiction without somehow *endorsing* it. The film is set in the mid- to late 19th century, which was still a colonial world in reality – but this is not reality, it’s an fantasy adventure story. If you can’t stomach that, you have a lifetime of whiny, kneejerk discomfort ahead of you. There are plenty of REAL causes in the world to devote that energy to.

      The depiction of Barsoom/Mars as a feudal society is just a setting for a story, not a blueprint for utopia. If you had actually seen the movie, you would have seen that the main arc involves overcoming old hatreds and old, destructive ways, coming together for the common good.

      Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 15, 2012, 12:42 am
      • I am by no means saying that we should not depict stratified/colonial culture in fiction. In fact, I welcome it. Instead, my perspective on critical readings is that we should be offering “productive” readings in which we look at the larger political and/or social implications. I understand that this article is not meant to be such a reading, and is intended to simply analyze the contributions of John Carter to the sci fi genre. Your vehement response, however, to my pointing out of a rather blatant flaw in John Carter, being it’s clear contribution to the propagation of a harmful colonial narrative, indicated to me that perhaps a greater discussion is actually needed about its rather obvious epistemological foundations.

        John Carter features the white, masculine adventurer archetype, traveling to far-off, exotic lands, encountering irrational natives whose problems are somehow solved simply by the arrival of some of that famed innovation associated with white skin. The “coming together for the common good” you mention is at the behest of John Carter, his white masculinity as figurehead for “progress.” There are clear connections here between colonial propaganda, social constructions of the global South, and John Carter.

        Is it impressive visually? Sure. Is it a nostalgic trip for fans of old-time Sci-Fi? Absolutely. But are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ collective works entrenched in a colonial episteme? Most certainly.

        Maybe I am being harsh, especially towards a movie I haven’t seen (I am familiar with the writings of Burroughs and read a synopsis of this particular film adaptation), but the permeation of coloniality into nearly every interaction we have today, whether it be politics, social interactions, art, fiction, or Disney films, (my analysis of the colonialism associated with the KONY 2012 campaign as an example of colonialism in a “current event” can be read here:http://mikeshighschoolnews.com/blogs/stefan-stackhouse/03/09/2012/white-gods-trojan-horses-and-microwaveable-activism-kony-2012-phe ) means we should probably be questioning the political, social, and epistemological implications of the making and viewing of John Carter.

        P.S. Please don’t trivialize my criticism as “knee jerk white guilt” garbage. There is substance here and a discussion to be had.

        Posted by Stefan Stackhouse | March 15, 2012, 1:20 pm
  3. Thanks for the review. It would have been easy to criticize the film and compare it to Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and the like, but I am glad you put it in perspective and can also still appreciate the fun in a movie well done. Looking forward to seeing the movie with my kids.

    Posted by Diana | March 15, 2012, 5:22 pm
  4. So, if you can’t slay ‘em with brevity, then annoy them to death with a torrent of logorrhea, hmm?

    What you perceive as an “obvious flaw” of the film is merely an opinion, and one obnoxiously expressed at that. Just because it happens to be yours does not make it a proposition of value under the circumstances.

    I mean, KONY 2012, really? This is not a grotesque propaganda piece we’re talking about, ala “300,” or a soft-headed environmental screed like “Avatar.” “John Carter” is about as inoffensively expressed as an escapist adventure film can be. Whatever neocolonialist baggage you choose to impose on it is your business, of course, but don’t expect everyone to be gobsmacked by your ritual invocation of the white male adventurer trope – we GET it, Jesus.

    The REALLY obvious flaw here is that you are pedantically lecturing a person of color – a well-educated individual of Mexican descent, and father of two part-Cherokee children – how he should feel about a “harmful colonial narrative.” Boy, I tell you, that particular absurdity NEVER gets old.

    Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 15, 2012, 5:25 pm
    • Ha ha ha .. excellent response..

      Posted by Robert | March 17, 2012, 3:29 am
      • Hey, I have no problem with a healthy debate, but I refuse to take seriously such heavy-handed criticism from folk who have not actually watched the movie they’re crapping on: “I have NO first-hand knowledge about this, but here’s why it’s blah blah blah blah …” That’s what insane people and talk radio commentators do.

        But maybe we could start a new blog for that: “Shitting on Movies We’ve Never Seen Because, You Know, Colonialism.”

        Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 17, 2012, 12:06 pm
    • You haven’t really answered him. You’ve been an arrogant dick for what appears absolute no real provocation. I am just surprised at the wave of sycophantic support you got for being an internet thug. You could have made a point that John Carter is inoffensive and demonstrated evidence from the movie…but you haven’t…you’ve just made really ignorant generalizations about a underprivileged course of study. Far from pedantic, the dude just made conversation. You’re a bright kid who wants conversation – we GET it. Then why don’t you tone it down, or is that just part of the whole my-job-is-useless-masturbation thing?

      Posted by John Henry Stuart | March 18, 2012, 7:26 pm
      • I made no generalizations about anyone’s course of study. If anything, Mr. Stackhouse’s blithe conflation of colonialist and neocolonialist memes are callow and uninformed, and his bizarre linkage of the “John Carter” movie to the Joesph Kony fiasco is more evidence of apophenia than enlightenment.

        But it’s not my job to moderate an academic discussion on colonialism, neocolonialism or your mom’s colonoscopy, it’s to review films. Mr. Stackhouse made an ill-informed social critique about a movie he had not seen, and that sort of sweeping idiocy should inspire nothing but contempt.

        BTW, thanks for making me laugh with that “dude just made conversation” comment. I’m going to have to try and see how easily I can shoehorn more phrases like “permeation of coloniality” into my everyday conversation. It seems being a humorless prick with an overdeveloped self-righteousness gland is a good way to begin, though I guess you would know that better than I.

        Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 18, 2012, 9:47 pm
  5. What is so depressing about John Carter is the utter lack of knowledge the general public had of its existence. The movie is above-average fantasy fare with plenty of wacky effects and colorful characters, and the main reason it is not doing well is that people didn’t even know what it was or that it was even coming out.

    I’m a huge fan of the books…have been for twenty years, and followed the project through the development hell of the last decade when the rights were picked up by Paramount. Even with my investment in this movie, I knew that people have for the most part NO IDEA who John Carter or Edgar Rice Burroughs are…Tarzan, yes…but Tarzan is seen as a passe and uncomfortable relic of the past (despite the fact that books are a rip-roaring good time). John Carter needed to be sold to people as soon as this movie got the green light, but there was nothing done to promote him as a character.

    Around March of last year, despite the fact that principal photography had been wrapped, there still had been nothing released…I was puzzled by this. Then the first preview was released, and I was underwhelmed (and I have been dying to see this movie). Uh Oh. Things got worse from there, and we all know the rest of the story. I swear it seems like the film was intentionally undersold…which is insane considering the budget and the supposed hopes for the movie as the beginning of a franchise.

    There is no reason for this movie to be junked like this…its a solid piece of work, if not perfect. Its like there was a general sense of apathy about getting the word out…like the people involved just didn’t care. I could understand if the movie was a piece of crap, but it isn’t. Furthermore, the critical reaction has been downright bizarre…Roger Ebert picks it apart because the characters use swords…wtf? Every other reviewer mentions the budget…do they do this for every movie? And despite the supposedly massive marketing budget, I have NEVER seen an ad for it on TV…I guess money just doesn’t go as far as it once did.

    All the while Transformers 4 has been greenlit, and Disney made a profit from the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I just don’t get it.

    Posted by glorbes | March 17, 2012, 9:01 pm
  6. Great review, by the way.

    Posted by glorbes | March 17, 2012, 9:03 pm
    • Thank you. For the most part, I share the same bewilderment. The only thing I can say is that the film was an unfortunate victim of internecine warfare among the Disney high muckamucks, and that a great portion of the entertainment press was willing to go along due to schadenfruede – shameful joy at the misfortune of others – generated by seeing a member of the Pixar crew (director Andrew Stanton) fail at last. The miserable fact is that this asinine narrative was set in place long before the film was even released.

      Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 18, 2012, 3:03 am
  7. beautifully done review. thank you for adding the history and historical context of the story and book along with the analysis of the film and filmmaking itself.

    i haven’t yet read any other titles, even those readily available, other than “a princess of mars”. thanks for helping me understand all the added material, especially the subplots in the middle.

    as for the perplexing way this film was “marketed”, it has been my opinion that over the last couple of decades, movie companies have not only forgotten how to market their products well, but haven’t tried to find help from other sources in marketing either. for proof of that, all you have to do is be our age and look at the toy department of any store nowadays and recall the toys of our youth. why has everyone forgotten that if you want something (especially sci-fi/fantasy) to be a success, get a child interested in it? why aren’t there little boys (and girls) everywhere already playing with (and having been playing with for months, now) john carter and tars tarkus and dejah thoris action figures and any number of their flying machines? I want to be playing with them with my little one!!!!

    Posted by happilymortal | March 18, 2012, 9:39 am
    • A handful of Barsoom characters, including John Carter, Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas, were issued in the mid-1990s as part of an oddball action figure line based on TV series, “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures,” which ran for one season in syndication. While Tarzan did visit Pellucidar (the subterranean world of “At The Earth’s Core”) in the TV series, he never visited Barsoom or encountered John Carter. (http://www.erbzine.com/mag13/1398.html)

      There’s a beautiful (and expensive) collector’s figure of John Carter currently available from Triad Toys, but it’s otherwise unrelated to the Disney film. You’ll note he’s wearing red – perhaps in disguise as a member of the Zodangan army, as in the novel? (The choice of red for Zodanga and blue for Helium was a conceit iof the film, actually) (http://www.triadtoys.com/Licenses/John+Carter+of+Mars/JOHN+CARTER+12+INCH+FIGURE.html)

      There’s a handful of John Carter items at the Disney Store, mostly T-shirts and mouse pads, but fans were complaining that even these were not on the shelves as of the film’s opening last weekend. The coolest thing they have is a lovely omnibus reprint volume of the fondly-remembered Marvel comic from the 1970s, “John Carter, Warlord of Mars,” but again, it’s otherwise unrelated to the Disney movie.

      I want a Woola so bad!

      Posted by Phillip Lozano | March 18, 2012, 2:02 pm

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