Cult Movie Review: John Carter (2012)

I grew up reading the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the author’s Princess of Mars “pulp” novels, so I was saddened to see the cinematic adaptation of the saga, John Carter (2012) bomb at the box office last spring. 

But — as difficult as it is for our money-focused, bottom-line-concerned, consumer modern society to recognize such things – financial success isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of a movie’s legacy or artistry.

And in regards to John Carter, I reckon that general audiences missed the boat – and a nice treat — by giving the film a pass.

In short, John Carter is a beautifully-conceptualized and gorgeously photographed “sword and sandals-” in-space epic.  Only the fact that virtually every sci-fi blockbuster from Star Wars (1977) to Attack of the Clones (2002), to Avatar(2009) has cribbed mercilessly from the Burroughs’ epic burdens the picture with an unfortunate surface impression of sameness. 

At this point, frankly, we’ve probably seen enough desert planets (Star Wars [1977], Dune [1984], Star Trek V: The Final Frontier[1989], Stargate [1994], Star Wars: The Phantom Menace [1999] etc.) to last us all a lifetime. 

Yet if you gaze underneath such familiar visual trappings, you may detect that John Carter possesses a droll, sure-footed imagination, and the rollicking senses of humor and, yes, joy, that many recent space adventures have deliberately forsaken in favor of darkness, angst, and doubt.

Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo [2003], Wall-E [2008]), John Carter is yet another one of those recent releases that met a cruel reception from reviewers; a reception that speaks more trenchantly about those reviewers and their own shortcomings than those of the film in focus. 

For instance, some critics were quick to term John Carter an Avatar “reject” without considering the fact that Burroughs’ John Carter practically originated the sci-fi adventure genre a century ago. 

Other critics only wanted to discuss inside baseball and reinforce a behind-the-scenes story:  The film was too expensive at 250 million dollars!  The director had shifted from animation to live action…why? 

Finally, some dunderheads even suggested that John Carter is incomprehensible, and that it is too “hard” to follow the film’s story.  I wonder what these same critics would have made of Star Wars when it first premiered in 1977.  

Who are these Jedi Knights we keep hearing about?  Who are all those aliens in the cantina? Why all this endless talk of an Imperial Senate that we never actually see?  Boring….  

But the cardinal sin is this one: So many critics focused on what was happening behind-the-scenes (admittedly, a marketing disaster) or the film’s “familiar” subject matter that they didn’t actually contend with the specifics of the film’s text itself, or with the creative and often amusing ways that John Carter tackled its narrative. 

In short, director Stanton adopts a stance of quirky individualism and wonder throughout the film, humanizing his lead character by deploying unexpected editing flourishes and off-kilter compositions that visually mirror the hero’s quest.

So yes, narrative-wise, the story of John Carter has been re-purposed many, many times. No point denying that.

But perhaps in recognition of that very fact, Stanton infuses his silver screen effort with a strong sense of romance, a quality of unfettered joy, and even a keen eye for detail that plays, finally as tribute to the genre’s history. 

Beyond those laudable values, a mild updating of the material (to include elements of the second Carter adventure, Gods of Mars) provides for an interesting commentary in our modern, twenty-first century era.  In particular, the film’s “civilized” villains — the god-like Therns — mirror how the rich and powerful manipulate religion, technology and even PR sleight-of-hand to drive an agenda that may be good for them — the few — but are wholly tragic for the rest of us, the many.

As Jeffrey Anderson insightfully wrote of John Carter at The San Francisco Examiner,this is a film that absolutely “celebrates the concept of adventure.”  

It’s a shame that for a lot of folks, that’s not enough.
“You are ugly, but you are beautiful. And you fight like a Thark!

Following the Civil War, confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Virginia goes in search of gold in the west. After running afoul of U.S. cavalry officers and Apache warriors, Carter hides in a cave and comes across a device that can transport him to another world…to Mars.

Carter wakes up on the dying planet — here called “Barsoom”— to find excessive strife.  And oddly, the gravity differential on Mars has granted Carter the strength, speed and agility of a superman.

Still, John is quickly captured by the warrior-like, green-skinned, twelve-foot tall Tharks, and trained as one of their number.  But a usurper to the throne, Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) makes trouble for the Tharks’ noble leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) after he allows Carter and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) to escape from captivity.

Soon, John teams up with a beautiful “Red” princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help defeat a conquering warlord named Sab Than (Dominic West).  The daughter of Helium’s king (Ciaran Hinds), Dejah is slated to marry Than unless she can find another way to repel his war fleet, and defeat his new, awesome power “the ninth ray.”

Attempting to find a way home to Earth, Carter comes to the rescue of Dejah, and learns that Helium and even Sab Than are being manipulated by dark, shadowy overlords known as Therns.  Their agent on Barsoom — Matai Shang (Mark Strong) — reveals that his people feed on societal divisions and strife, and are manipulating the planet Barsoom towards total disaster.

As Dejah’s wedding day nears, Carter must recruit the savage Tharks to his valiant cause, and he tests his mettle in a Thark arena against a monstrous white ape…

“We do not cause the destruction of a world, Captain Carter. We simply manage it. Feed off it, if you like.”

John Cartereffortlessly cruises through a two-hour plus running time, in part because director Stanton doesn’t hew to tradition or convention in terms of visual presentation. Specifically, Stanton takes full advantage of unconventional editing techniques – jump cuts, for instance— to craft humorous montages out of small moments that might have been neglected or ignored in another director’s hands

Take for example, John Carter’s repeated but futile attempts to escape the U.S. cavalry.  Stanton stages these moments with fierce abandon and with flourishes of heroic music on the soundtrack.  Carter leaps into action and attempts to break free.  But the editing sets up a joke/punch-line dynamic.  After Carter lunges into action, he gets smacked down…hard.  This happens repeatedly (perhaps three times in all), and each attempt only lands Carter in deeper trouble: bruised, bloodied, and finally incarcerated in prison. 

But the persistent jump cuts from the initiation of Carter’s daring escape gambits to the unfortunate results of his efforts prove very funny, and quite unexpected.  They almost immediately announce the film’s intention to play the story not as camp, but as good, entertaining fun.

Yet the sequences featuring these jump cuts reveal character traits ably as well.  Carter is resilient and indomitable, even when he doesn’t possess the upper hand.  This is a trait that will come in handy on the desert plains of inhospitable Barsoom. 

Also, the moments of Carter jumping up – and getting smacked down hard – play as direct and deliberate contrast to those later moments on Mars when the gravity difference allows the protagonist to leap into the sky….and successfully fly into action.  On Barsoom – where he belongs – nothing can hold Carter back.  The pointed contrast with the earlier jump-cut shots thus represents a visual recognition of destiny achieved.

Another great moment occurs as Carter teleports to Mars and attempts to stand-up and walk for the first time.  Again, the unexpected occurs:  he falls down.  Once, then again, then again and again.   Carter is not instantly portrayed as a physically-competent superman, able to conquer natural forces in a single bound 

Instead, we see him fall flat on his face over and over, looking every bit the fool.  Again, this off-kilter moment reveals something of the main character’s resilience.  It would have been easy (but wrong) to omit Carter’s physical training, and just have him emerge on Mars a superhero  Instead, we get another humorous montage that reminds us of Carter’s human nature.  He may get to be a superman in time, but first he has to take his licks, looking like an idiot.  We understand why he’s humble and righteous, not arrogant and over-confident.

Stanton finds other ways to puncture any unnecessary solemnity.  The Tharks continually refer to John Carter as “Virginia,” even after he asks them not to, and they also give him a kind of alien bull-dog sidekick that he can’t escape from. In both instances – again – viewers are asked to reckon with a hero with feet of clay, with frailties and limitations.  It’s no fun, after all, if our hero is unbeatable, or if power comes too easily to him.

Another good joke comes later in the film: Carter’s inability to stick a landing while piloting a Martian flying machine.  This comedic situation serves the same function as all the other jokes, making Carter relatable and bearable to us in the audience instead of some unsympathetic ubermensch.

For me, the emotional honesty and dynamic lyricism of Stanton’s directorial approach comes to the forefront in another unconventional but magnificent moment.  During a fierce battle with Tharks, Stanton deploys incessant cross-cutting to flash back from the height of the savage attack to a character defining moment in the past when Carter returns home from the Civil War and discovers his family – his wife and child – murdered. 

The cross-cutting is vitally important here because it permits us to understand why Carter has again embraced war (“a shameful thing,” he notes at one point).  When he kills – and kills on a near-cosmic scale – he is remembering the tragic loss that destroyed his life, his very identity. Sword blades slicing through the air cross-cut with images of a shovel striking dirt…digging a grave.  Again, director Stanton has found a way to adroitly and economically visualize this hero’s essential character.

I also very much appreciate the “fan” homages that Stanton delicately and unobtrusively threads into the picture.  Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize, at one point, a familiar expanse of Vasquez Rocks, where Captain Kirk famously fought his green-skinned Gorn opponent, in Star Trek (1966 – 1969). 

And one scene set in a canoe directly mirrors a moment in the Forbidden Zone with Charlton Heston on an inflatable yellow raft, from Planet of the Apes(1968).  John Carter is veritably seeded with these canny visual allusions to previous genre classics, thus graciously noting that it is part of a longstanding continuum, even if Burroughs was really an initiator, not imitator, of the literary “pulp” adventure.

Above, I mentioned the social commentary embedded in John Carter, and there’s no doubt of its presence.  Several times during the course of the film, for instance, we witness the workings of what can only be called a large “fracking” machine, one damaging and degrading the very stability of Barsoom.

Furthermore, the Thern leader – an advanced would-be God – notes that he “manages” and “feeds off” the destruction of worlds while “societies divide.”  This is a wicked metaphor for the very debate we see playing out in our national dialogue about the role of “vulture capitalists,” like those at Mitt Romney’s Bain.  Such men champion “creative destruction” and shepherd the chopping-up and selling-off of resources…so that they alone profit.  This is indeed the very dynamic we see played out with Matai Shang, a creature “managing” the destruction of Barsoom for his own benefit.

Another element of that dynamic, of course, is the 1% argument we associate with the Occupy movement.  The Therns represent only a few people, but their agenda rules the planet as the various, diverse denizens of Barsoom battle over dwindling resources such as water, or new technologies such as the ninth ray.  The many are distracted by manufactured wars or partisan divides while the vultures fly in and feast on a world (or country’s…) natural wealth.

In no way is this movie a “message” picture, but as always, great art reflects the dynamics of the time period in which it was produced.  Like John Carpenter’s yuppie aliens in They Live (1988), the Therns of John Carter are both resource-guzzlers and puppet masters, managing a largely-unaware, highly-distracted population.  Some of those avenues of control involve the sowing of racial division (humanoids versus Tharks), and the manipulation of religious rituals, namely marriage.  Again, one need only to gaze at current headlines to see how some political forces “feed” on such disunion in real life.

Outside this commentary, John Carter also boasts an opinion about — as reviewer Anderson noted – the very concept of adventure.  John Carter escorts viewers from the last American (mythic) realm of adventure – the Old West – into the new frontier of space adventure.  This conceit from Burroughs’ literary canon is so brilliant because it connects our past to our future, and reminds us that our mythology’s forms may vary or shape-shift over time, but that the human content remains largely the same.  Like many a Western icon, John Carter is the stranger who rides into a new town, and finds injustice there.  He rectifies that situation because – as an outsider – he has no “dog in this hunt,” to turn a phrase used in the film.

Unfortunately for John Carter, period sci-fi adventure movies almost never succeed with the public, as I’ve reported in the past.  The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996) all failed too, because, I suspect, at some level we desire to see our modern, technological corollaries up there on the big screen in science fiction adventures, not anachronistic men from an age long past.  Still, I enjoy how John Carter keeps one foot in the past and one in the future.  The very idea is reflected in Carter’s tomb inscription: “Inter Mundos.”  That phrase meaning “between worlds” describes not just the film’s two separate planets, but its two distinct traditions of myth and adventure.

John Carterfeatures gorgeous photography (particularly in the scenes set on the river of Isis), but more importantly, highlights a charming romance.  Carter and Dejah fall in love – with all the expected sparks and hardships– and for once in a movie of this type, the scenes resonate and provoke interest rather than inducing winces.  The film possesses that otherworldly quality of charm, to quote Harve Bennett, and you can detect that charm in the fun (but not annoying) bull-dog sidekick, in Tarkas’s humorous dialogue, and most importantly in Stanton’s selection of shots and editing techniques.  

On the latter front, just consider that if the Carter/Dejah romantic scenes did not work so well, the triumphant punctuation of a scene in which Carter appears to return to Earth would not play as nearly effectively as it now does.  As it stands, it’s a great and surprising twist, and one told with a sense of convincing and confident simplicity; a simple tilt of the camera towards the ceiling.  To me, this scene represents one of those perfect movie minutes when all the elements work precisely as intended, and the audience is really drawn into the world of the characters.

Finally, I would like to report that I felt like Tars Tarkas did while watching this film – that when I saw John Carter I believed it was a sign that something new can come into this world.  

That didn’t happen, exactly.  Our culture is too saturated with similar films, perhaps, for John Carter to achieve escape velocity as a Star Wars-sized, tradition-busting, fad-inducing, trend-setter. But at the very least, I’m satisfied that I’ve seen in John Carter a refreshing change of pace in terms of modern blockbusters.  It’s a well-made and wholly joyful film, and it deserved a better reception. 

John Carter is one of the few cinematic heirs to Star Wars that actually includes all the elements I have sought and treasured in space adventure movies since May of 1977: heart, soul, humor and wonder.   If those sound like qualities you can buy into, I recommend the movie wholeheartedly.

Now if someone would just make a movie of another favorite “pulp” adventure from my childhood: E.E. “Doc Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1915).
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14 responses to “Cult Movie Review: John Carter (2012)

  1. Yours is the second positive re-assessment of this movie I've read recently. I missed it in theaters–as you say, so many sci=fi fantasy epics have borrowed from Burroughs that it did sound a bit stale. Looking forward to it on DVD.

  2. I think that this film was probably doomed from the get-go. The source material has been pillaged by so many films before it that when the first trailer surfaced the general consensus was that we had already seen this story before, we had already seen this world before but in actuality, Burroughs' story came first. Sadly, I don't think JOHN CARTER ever recovered from that "been there, done that" mentality but may find a second life on home video. One can hope.I also struck by how many media pundits almost took glee in predicting this film's failure. As if throwing all this money and being backed by Disney and by proxy Pixar was a scarlet letter and that the film should be punished regardless of whether it was good or not. And then, these same pundits took equal delight in delivering "I told ya so" post-mortems when it failed to deliver at the box office.I felt the same about THE GOLDEN COMPASS and felt that there was an excellent film that didn't get a fair shake by the moviegoing public.

  3. Hi,I saw John Carter, but with one modification: I enhanced the colors (a lot) and slowed the playback (to 90%). Other than that, I let the movie flow and… I liked it. I tried to watch it at 100% but I found it was far too fast and too furious for my taste. I wish they'd stop treating their CGI like ugly old Mexicans: you want them in your movie, but you don't want them to show their faces to much. No offence to ugly old Mexicans everywhere, but that's exactly what they're doing! And I think that's why sword fighting in Star Wars works: they take their time. They're not sipping champagne or anything, but they're not Japanese Samurai either. Other than that, it is a impressive movie, even if it starts a bit slow and the climax is not exactly satisfying. And maybe for a blockbuster of this size they should have gone with a better known cast (and a younger lead actress). Oh, and the marketing was awful, yes.

  4. Hi SteveW,I hope you enjoy the film when you see it. It's just impossible to get away from the fact that we've seen a dozen or so desert planets at this time. John Carter (the film) suffers from the familiarity of its location. Yet I feel the director makes up for this deficit with fun and unusual film techniques. Let me know what you think when you see the film…best,John

  5. J.D.,You do a terrific job of expressing the critical atmosphere surrounding John Carter. Critics were rooting for the film to fail, and that is not the job of a critic. It's really messed up and wrong, in fact. I agree that there was "glee" involved in dissing the film, and a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. All the stories about John Carter were negative, and then when he movie failed, the critics said, absolutely, as you say — "Told you so!" Honestly, it makes me sick. The movie itself is a lot of fun.I saw The Golden Compass in the theaters but don't honestly remember it well enough to make an intelligent comment on it. At that point, my son was a little over one year old, and waking up three or four times a night, needing to be walked for hours at a stretch. So I saw the movie…and promptly lost it to the recesses of my memory. I should see it a second time…Great insights here, as usual, my friend…best,John

  6. Hi jay-jay,I enjoyed reading your assessment of John Carter, and we agree that the movie is impressive, if not perfect. The CGI, along with the desert vistas, is too familiar-seeming. But I thought Kitsch and Collins acquitted themselves quite well. I understand why you slowed playback…that's an interesting method to catch more of the detail, I must say!Great comment,best,John

  7. John I think your review is 'on the money', well done. I had some people say to me that the trailer reminded them of the desert scenes from Star Wars:Attack Of The Clones, unfortunately they felt 'been there, done that'. Way back in the '80s, I read the novel this film was based on in my high school science-fiction class and loved it. Sadly, I think it is simply that, as you stated, so many directors have successfully borrowed from it before this film was made. I also think as foolish as it might sound to some Disney should have kept 'Mars' in the title, hence JOHN CARTER OF MARS. It might have attracted the youth with their families since when I was a boy anything with 'Mars' in the title got my attention.SGB

  8. Excellent review of John Carter, John! Every point you made about the film feeling familiar are true. What I don’t understand is why that automatically makes it a bad film. Poor storytelling, bad acting and uninteresting visuals make a film dull and unexciting and John Carter had none of these things. If anything, John Carter tried to fit too much story into one film. I do think it was a mistake incorporating The Gods of Mars into the film, because even as a reader of the first novel, I found their inclusion initially confusing and somewhat distracting from the central storyline of John Carter becoming involved in the Barsoom civil war, when he was still trying to escape the ramifications of the civil war that he fought in on Earth. Still, as a plot device to tie the film together it worked well.I too love films that adapt older science fiction or pulp material. Unfortunately, the vast majority of film goers who are between the ages of 18 to 35 don’t have any connection to the classic characters of the past – particularly prior to the 1980’s. John Carter was an unknown character to your average film fan and was not able to sell itself on brand name recognition. It was the Disney Studio’s obligation – and in their own best financial interests – to educate potential fans of this film just who and what John Carter was and is. Instead, they took Mars out of the title and cut the trailers in such a way as to make it look like just another generic sci-fi fantasy special effects-laden movie. It is too bad that kids didn’t see this film at the theater, because if they had, they would have loved it and more than likely seen it multiple times; possibly allowing Disney Studios to make a profit on their huge investment. Unfortunately, thanks to their failure to market the film properly, we won’t get to see John Carter reunited with Dejah Thoris and leap through the air of Barsoom again.

  9. I very much enjoyed this film, John. It's not perfect (you can see some of the studio exec fingerprints on things where it doesn't quite work), but whatever wrong there never overcame the fun I got out of the film as a whole. Now, I'd certainly would love to see a Stanton director's cut pressed, that's for sure. I'm picking up a BD to show this one to my kids. Thanks, John.

  10. Hi SGB:Oh my gosh, I heard the same complaint about Attack of the Clones, regarding the desert environment and the look of the alien Tharks and their arena. It's sad that so much of Burroughs' imagination has been appropriated by other films.I agree too that keeping Mars in the title seems essential. John Carter sounds completely random. It could be anything. But John Carter of Mars sounds…epic.Good points!best,John

  11. Hi Michael!I totally agree that the film isn't perfect. But John Carter is a hell of a lot of fun, and a good film. I'd love to see a director's cut as well, my friend. Let me know how the kids are (or are not…) impressed with one. I'm curious to see how the younger generation feels about the mythos…best,John

  12. Hi Doc,We really do see eye to eye on this one. I agree with your diagnosis of what makes a bad film, and this is where I get angry at the critics. Many (especially online) reviewers are not able to see past the superficial qualities of a film, like the fact that it is set on a desert planet, and judge the film according to its merits. Instead, they settle for the dumbest, easiest review: "You've seen John Carter and its world before. Nothing to see here, move along…" I hate that, because it's lazy and doesn't speak to the film's themes or narrative. Instead, it's just a snap judgment…and a bad one.I am sort of on the fence regarding the inclusion of the Gods of Mars material. I think the Therns make great villains, and they give the film its topical, current theme: the Bain Capital of the Solar System, so-to-speak. But having these puppet masters at work here, when the world is still being established, does tend to make things a bit complicated. Still, I think the film is digestible if audiences pay attention. You've got to work a little bit, but heck, that's why you and I love these movies, right?I also love films that adapt the old pulp material, but you are correct that young viewers have no connection to the material. It reminds me of when I was writing for a (now-defunct) genre magazine. I was told I could not write about the old productions of the 1970s and 1980s, and could only write about topics (films and televisions) that "sixteen year olds would know." That was an eye opening and horrible experience, and one of the main reasons I began a blog here: so I could write about what I want and not assume that all audiences are callow and uninformed. But the widespread response to John Carter is indeed callow and uninformed.Excellent comment, my friend. Thank you for contributing to the conversation.best,John

  13. "It’s a well-made and wholly joyful film, and it deserved a better reception."Wholeheartedly agreed, John. Joyous is the perfect word for the overall tone of this film. I'm still bewildered by the savaging John Cater received at the hands of some critics, and the cold shoulder that the overwhelming majority of moviegoers showed it during its theatrical release. Blame can and should be leveled at the marketing, which was atrocious and seemed almost purposefully pedestrian and obtuse, but poor marketing alone can't account for Carter's box office failure.Is there an element of familiarity to some of the elements here? Absolutely. As you astutely note, other creators have pilfered Burroughs' text for decades. But the film has a raw vitality and life that transcends that familiarity (at least for me). Yes, there are scenes and choices that don't work, but there are many, many more that do. I'm saddened that we'll never see Stanton's follow-up film, as I feel he'd have delivered an even more accomplished, confident and exciting sequel, but I'm grateful that John Carter exists, and that Stanton and Lynn Collins have crafted such an admirably strong, funny, compelling and intelligent female character in Dejah Thoris. I very much look forward to sharing this filkm with my daughter when she's old enough.

  14. John Carter was way superior to Avatar measured in entertainment value and otherwise. I lost a lot of respect for Jay Leno who made the Movie look like a joke and a flop by telling the whole American people what a disaster it was (and ignoring the Box Office in the rest fo the world), making everybody laugh. Also the media choosed to quote and print all the negative reviews. Sadly, the audienced choosed to listen to them instead of seeing the film themselves and make up their own mind. The combined effect of all this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I had the impression that many WANTED this movie to fail, especially considering the huge budget, to they could later claim; “we told you so, it would be a gigantic flop”, or for some other reason. All you had to to was to take a look a the imdb discussion board, one of our social media these days. But as mentioned, also people higher up, like the authors of articles in blogs and online newspaper, had some pretty obnoxious reviews that only exposed their own lack of understanding. The saddest part is that we will probably never see to two announced sequels. Stanton was even so sure about the success that he was working on them while the movie was in post production. Most of the masses will never realize what could have been.

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