I’m going to start this review by specifying that anything in normal font is not, in my opinion, a spoiler. Anything in italics is.
If you are a fan of the classic science fiction novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as I am, and know all the names, measurements, and cultures, well, this review is for you. If you are not a fan, and just want to go to an entertaining movie, John Carter will be entertaining, but you will feel a bit lost, largely because in attempting to make the VAST plot more accessible, the director succeeded in obscurring and confusing everybody.
What you’ll like:
Firstly, the world is gorgeous, and despite a few tiny faults, like airships that aren’t shaped like canoes, or a martian calot (dog) with fewer legs than specified, they were pretty faithful to the books. In fact, i found their depiction of Woola and the white apes actually quite incredible. I’m so happy they did this, because that other terrible adaptation which shall not be named (Princess of Mars) didn’t even have hands matching heads. The creatures looked as they should, with the exception of the main character* (to be discussed later)
Dejah Thoris is less two dimensional. In the book series, she’s kind of a waste of space, some imperial female archetype who seems to capture John Carter’s heart as if by magic (because she sure as hell never says one word that makes us fall in love with her). In this depiction, she’s regent of the science academy, and weilds a sword, which I dig. They give her lines and a mission, which is nice, and she doesn’t just cower behind John and wave a pistol. However, that being said, the script really did just suck. Most of her lines were either vast leaps of logic, or were too emotive for the scene. She spends a good chunk of time moaning about how she’d do anything for her people EXCEPT marry a douche. You mostly just want to smack her. Literary Dejah Thoris wasn’t forced into marrying. Her father refused to hand her off. She was the one who bridged the divide, and when all other hopes seemed to fail, gave herself to the cause and OFFERED to marry Sab Than. The film spends time building up her character, giving her a brain, letting her hold a sword, then falls flat by allowing her to turn into a “silly woman”. All in all, I did approve of the actress in appearence, if not entirely in acting.
Tars Tarkas was good, but the script made him too personable, much too quickly. His warrior’s relationship with Carter develops slowly, over battles. Literary Tars Tarkas does not chat about his feelings. He is a stoic, like Warf from TNG.
You’ll love the jumping scenes, the battle-scapes, and moments where John is a badass. Though these are not entirely kind to the main character*
What you’ll HATE:
I can’t say this enough, if you love the infallible embodiment of just and noble soldiery, you’ll HATE their John Carter. Literary Carter is a champion of the weak, always jumps into a fight without a single thought for himself or for any other cause than to make the fight even. He does not accept leadership roles, but inevitably hands them off to his next new friend, because his job is to win, not be a statesman. Most importantly, HE IS IMMORTAL. In the books he is hinted at being a personification of the god of war. He cannot remember a past, or a time when he wasn’t young. He is an extreme, an archetype, not a person, and when you try to give him fictitious motivations, like a family (that he never had) who dies, or a disillusionment with the military (which he never espoused), and turn him into a gold digger scouring the landscape for profit, you fundamentally change the message and the underpinnings of the story. John Carter didn’t go mining because he was a money grubber. He went mining because the new, peaceful united states had no place for a professional soldier. He was not a whiny bitch. He did not moan and groan about being pulled into a war, or a cause, or anything else. I cannot tell you how much I HATED this.
The Therns were absurd. In the books, the Therns are not some alien race out moving from world to world destroying them. They weren’t the fucking aliens from Independence Day. They were a humanoid race on Mars that lived in seclusion, EATING the people, not feeding off the destruction of the world. They don’t shape shift, and they certainly cannot travel from planet to planet. They are symbols of false prophecy, emblems for deceitfulness that we face in our world every day. They rely upon old traditions and religious lies to lure people to their dinner table, literally. They’re not walking the planet. They’re too busy hiding in a cave. They are not the bene gesserit. They are fat, lazy spiders.
The plot was terrible. I mean hello, how hard is it to do recapitulate the plot of the book? There were antagonists and fights and all the stuff they tried to capture, with none of the complications. The movie felt as if they were trying to cram everything in for fear they wouldn’t gain a sequel. Problem is, none of it made any sense. It was unnecessary to include the Therns. It was unnecessary to explain how John Carter travels between worlds. He can do it because of his god-incarnate identity. Explaining it is just cheesy and unsatisfying, and hello a rip off of Star Gate. You cannot INTRODUCE the ninth ray as a major power source and weapon, because THAT’S HOW ALL THE SHIPS ARE FLYING IN THE FIRST PLACE. They already had that technology. Not to mention that the plot line of a whole world dying of asphyxia is a hell of a lot more entertaining than John Carter getting sent back by some asshole who shape shifts, just when he had relaxed. So much was crammed into one place that even the tiny, subtle underplot of Tars Tarkas’ back story was turned into an afterthought. It became a guess that one character makes about another, without any ostensible evidence, which is then immediately confirmed. It just wasn’t believable.
This movie is a fail if you’re a fan. It has the look, but does not hold up. The plots and characters are twisted, and the main character is a mere shadow of what he could have been. If you are a Carter fan, you will not find him here. I’m glad it was made, but honestly, I wish they’d just followed the books. They would have had a more insightful commentary about racism, a more profound reflection upon alienation, and even might have touched upon the “otherness” of an immortal creature wandering worlds, unable to die as other men do. All in all, I’m very disappointed.
P.S. it was impossible to find this out of 3D and frankly I cannot fathom why. This movie did not have a single moment that was enhanced by 3D (which surprised me given that it features a man who can jump hundreds of feet). All it did was make me sea sick and piss me off. Seriously, it’s about as smart as those crystal monitor screens that just make it impossible to watch movies in anything other than pitch darkness. Lame. Hollywood, get off the 3D kick. It’s stupid and adds nothing.