Gabby: We are summoned to Mars by my choice…
Jeremy: John Carter. Note to self: make sure safe search is on when looking for images of Dejah Thoris for the article you’re writing.
Gabby: So what was your first viewing of this? Any previous relationship with the property?
Brett: This was the first time I watched it.
Jeremy: This was my second viewing. Like most everybody else, I didn’t see John Carter in theaters. I wanted to – but never got around to it. I rented it as soon as it came out on video. Before this retrospective on pulp/weird fiction adaptations, I tried reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and could never get into it. During my daily commute recently, I listened to a free audiobook reading so I’d have an understanding of what it took to adapt the source material.
I was – and still am – pleasantly surprised by this movie, even if they didn’t completely crack the story. Everyone involved in this production – from director Andrew Stanton to a desperately floundering marketing department – wasted too much energy on convincing us that there was something here for everyone, instead of just telling the damn story.
Gabby: I wish I could have supported this when it came out. But I only saw one poster for it and I live in London and that was when it stopped showing in cinemas. Now, either I may have been living under a rock at the time, or that says a lot at how terrible that marketing was. Though I knew I wanted to see it. I had seen a special on it on TV. Like a brief kind of promotion almost and I wanted to support it.
Jeremy: I wish I’d supported it in theaters, as well. This movie reminds me of a lot of first installments in comic book franchises – not great, but potentially on the way to greatness. The big problem for me is that I always felt an arm’s length away from the character of John Carter. I never cared for any of these characters or the world they were fighting for, and that’s what I want more than anything from a movie like this.
Brett: I was super bored. In fact, I have to be the Jeremy for this movie. I really didn’t enjoy myself here. I can try to think of some positive things, but I spent most the movie wishing it was shorter and had less storylines and characters. I was just bored really.
Jeremy: It could be leaner and meaner, yeah. Let me start at the end of the movie and work my way back: I wasn’t fully engaged on this viewing, then found myself grinning like an idiot during the last scene. I was suddenly – finally – charmed by Taylor Kitsch as he told his nephew, a fictionalized Edgar Rice Burroughs, to take chances and live his life. I was overjoyed that Carter was going back to Mars, despite feeling little joy before that moment. The movie suddenly came alive.
One of the reasons Andrew Stanton jumped from animation to live-action was because he was “spontaneity-starved.” I find precious little spontaneity in John Carter. The budget got too big and Disney panicked about having another flop with Mars in the title. And it shows in almost every scene. It’s calculated to death.
Gabby: I also really like the segment with John and his nephew getting him back to Mars. I got invested in his quest to get back there and felt very happy when he succeeded.
Brett: Okay, so here’s my problem: the book A Princess of Mars is thinner than a DVD box. That’s not a joke, I checked. We happen to have all the books hanging around the house, even though I have never read them. This should have been a fast-paced, peppy, pulpy, action-packed thrill ride. Instead, they try to build a franchise and ended up smothering the adventure and excitement under the weight of all the extra story.
Mark Strong’s villain and storyline should not have been in this movie. It turned an Indiana Jones-style romp into a Lord of the Rings snorefest. It wasn’t a badly made movie, although the CGI became visual noise after a while. It became ponderous and dull.
I liked the way the movie started. I thought the exploration of Mars and John’s discovery of his super-strength on Mars was fun. But every time they cut away from him, the movie just died. I didn’t care about the extended storyline they were building for Dejah Thoris, or much of anything that wasn’t John doing Mars stuff. I just wanted to see him doing his thing, that’s when the movie worked for me.
Gabby: ‘John doing Mars stuff’ should have been the tag line for this movie.
Brett: Since I got bored, I lost track of the 200 plot lines they were throwing at the wall hoping something would stick. I was just sitting there saying, “Have the adventurer do adventure stuff. I don’t care if Dejah Thoris gets the ring to Mount Doom. I don’t care if Mark Strong ever takes over Mars or not. Just tell me the number to the phone in my car and get on with it!” They were in such a hurry to advertise the next movie, they forgot you still have to enjoy this movie. I am going to just say the problem was pacing and not letting the world-building happen naturally.
I was reminded of how I felt watching The Wolverine. I was bored; it wasn’t working for me. I knew it should work for me, and yet there I was bored and not caring. I never really connected with the story and I ended up standing on the outside not being able to understand what all the fuss was about.
Gabby: I enjoy the exploration of his powers when he first gets to Mars. And I like the Lord of the Rings comparisons here! That is very on point. There is too much melodrama going on in the background that takes away from the adventure and fun of discovering Mars.
Jeremy: Oddly enough, like The Black Cauldron, this movie pulls material from the first two Barsoom books and puts them in a blender. Granted, there’s almost thirty years and countless regime changes at Disney separating the two movies, but it’s interesting to see they made the same mistake twice.
Brett: What is it with Disney trying to cram two books worth of story into one movie?
Jeremy: The Therns, led by Mark Strong’s character, don’t show up until the second book. They’re one addition too many for this movie. That being said, I like the idea of the Therns, a clandestine organization profiting off the wars they engineer. But it feels like a safe choice – namely because they tie it together with Carter being a Confederate soldier. Stanton’s trying to say there’s often a moral divide between the people who start wars and those fighting them. In theory, that’s a good message, but it feels a bit half-hearted here. Another calculation.
Gabby: The cynic in me also believes history has proved to us that is false. One example would be the ‘following orders’ example from the Nazis. We know that was not always the case.
Brett: The hundreds of story lines are a big reason why this movie never engaged me. I did kind of connect with John Carter though. I would watch that pretty motherfucker running around, being half naked and heroic all day.
Jeremy: Sometimes a hero being heroic is enough. Granted I’ll take a conflicted Peter Parker over a vanilla Clark Kent any day. But I still like a Clark Kent.
Brett: I like certain Clark Kents. It depends whose playing/writing him. I have this horrible feeling that if John Carter was more Marvel and less Tron: Legacy, it would have gone better.
Jeremy: All three movies we picked this round felt like they needed to give their protagonists tortured backstories so modern audiences would connect with them. In fact, my pick, The Whisperer in Darkness, also gives the main character a dead wife and kid, with the same mixed results.
Brett: Spoilers! Does he not have a family in A Princess of Mars? I haven’t read it. *
*This only makes the second book/story that the movie was based on that Brett hasn’t read – ed.
Jeremy: Yep. Anything that contributes to Carter’s moodiness or ambivalence to the conflicts around him was invented for this movie.
I’m not that familiar with Taylor Kitsch. He’s at his best here in the brief moments where he gets to be a charming rogue. It’s not a bad performance – but I get the impression he wanted to have more fun than he was allowed to have, which doubles down on the moodiness. I’m not against Stanton humanizing the character, but this is a pretty dour start for a movie franchise based on a - and I don’t mean this to sound derogatory – juvenile adventure series. A character that can soar through the air shouldn’t be weighed down by this much emotional baggage.
Brett: Juvenile seems like an appropriate word.
Jeremy: It’s green men and red boobs wankery, yeah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Gabby: It is a shame with it being boring to you Brett. I do agree there is too much thrown in here. As Jeremy pointed out, a second film might have got it to a much higher level. Mark Strong’s plotline is definitely the big weakness here. It is sad that the movie was such a bomb and it probably will never get a chance to develop that potential.
The addition of his tortured past and him being a Confederate soldier is unnecessary. I do like his quest trying to get back to Mars and it making him rich. And the fact that he only enjoys those riches so far as it allows him to continue. The charming
rogue mode is much better for Kitsch, but also makes for a more likeable character. The moodiness is just unpleasant at times. I like the section where he and the Princess are on Mars’ answer to camels… space camels. There is this playful back and forth between them, much preferable over him grumping in a corner somewhere thinking about a medallion.
To go back on something Jeremy said earlier, I think the part where the boring and calculated studio notes show through is with the villains. Sab Than (Dominic West’s character) could have been the villain on his own, without being connected to faux space philosphers. The Therns felt like they were there to unnecessarily tie the script together.
Brett: In Heavy Metal, there is a story where a geek is taken to another world and decides to stay because in that world he’s a big strong guy with women dripping off him. No tragic backstory, no dead family. The only explanation you get is “On Earth, I was no one, but here, I’m Den!” Hey, you guys wanna watch Heavy Metal?
Jeremy: Ummm… Er…
In the screenwriters’ defense, A Princess of Mars is very episodic. If you take out the Therns entirely from this movie and save the Zodangas for a third-act complication, the major plot beats are faithful to the novel. The book hints that Carter isn’t even human, that he was originally from Mars. He’s seemingly ageless (most of the Martian races live for a 1,000 years), can’t remember his youth, and learns to travel between the two worlds by thought alone.
He’s also a straight-up fuckin’ psychopath in the book.
Without the Therns, the whole story comes down to what Carter’s willing to do to save Dejah Thoris (a strong, well-written damsel in distress – but a damsel in distress, nonetheless) from the Tharks and then the Zodangas. There’s a lot of flowery prose about Carter’s dogged belief in duty, loyalty, and love – but there’s so many moments in the book where he stumbles into a situation, does his best to size up who the bad guys are, and proceeds to murder the shit out of said bad guys. He needlessly murders as many people/aliens as possible. It’s like he’s trying to beat his fuckin’ high score or something.
Don’t get me wrong, Burroughs wrote a hell of a story – but the novel often crossed whatever limits I have for enjoying power fantasies. Even if the final film is too calculated, I get why Stanton looked at the source material and decided a white interloper, a Confederate soldier no less, reshaping a world in his own image wasn’t going to play.
Brett: In the books, the Martians have red skin and nobody wears any clothes. There aren’t even loin cloths, everyone just runs around starkers. They sometimes wear leather belts around their chests and have capes of colored material. Strangely, Disney didn’t go for the nudity part…
Jeremy: I’m surprised there wasn’t a trashy ’70s European adaptation with tons of nudity. I would happily watch that on Hulu and then happily delete my watch history in order to avoid my wife’s frowny face.
Back to this movie: what did everyone think about the performances?
Brett: I found the woman playing Dejah to be sort of boring, but I couldn’t tell if that was the actress or the writing or the directing or what.
Gabby: There is a missing element in the performances. Is there anyone that really stands out to either of you? Thinking about it now, they are all okay, but not really more than that.
Jeremy: I mentioned earlier feeling an arm’s length away from the characters. To me, it seems like the actors felt the same way about their roles. The one exception is Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, who gets to go big and have fun. Oh, here’s one moment that does seem spontaneous: Tars Tarkas slapping Carter in the back of the head for leading their army in the wrong direction. That joke is so unexpected and welcome at that point in the movie.
Like Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins is fine as Dejah Thoris. They did a good job of modernizing the character and giving her things to do that were handled by other male characters in the book. I never doubted for a moment that her character was John Carter’s equal. A lot of that comes from Collin’s performance.
Also, I had a real “Pullman/Paxton” with James Purefoy and Dominic West. Thank God the two were color-coded with their blue and red capes. I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.
And with that, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: To me there are joys in the film. I think the movie looks its best, funnily, when Carter is on Earth and the plot involves his nephew. There is something involving and lived in about it. And when not swarmed by CGI battling aliens, I find Mars quite fun. The landscape, when Carter is trying out his jumping skills for instance, are impressive.
The movie could do with a bit more of the adventurous and good humored spirit of that and the space camel scene. There is a touch of dark humour when Carter reappears, as his nephew is trying to open the crypt. More of that and it would have made it a bit more peppy. That and a bit of a tighter script. As it stands, I still really enjoy this movie. I wish it hadn’t been given such a hard time as there is a lot to like. It was brave to do this movie – despite the last minute, misguided cowardice from the studio. It has a spirit of adventure that shows through in certain scenes with an imaginative take on life on another planet.
Brett: Honestly, what annoys me most is that I REALLY wanted to like this, and I… just… didn’t. This gets added to an annoyingly long list of things I feel like I should like and just don’t. I feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party, but they’re playing music I don’t like and eating food that makes me sick. But everyone else is having fun and I feel bad just mentioning if I eat the shrimp stuffed mushrooms I will basically explode and die. Don’t worry John Carter, you’re in good company on that shelf, with a lot of other fan favorites.
Jeremy: If you take away all the stigma surrounding this movie, you’ll find an occasionally bland but enjoyable adventure story. You could do so much worse. For Andrew Stanton, an animation director switching over to live-action for the first time, it’s a surprisingly assured debut. The problem is that this went through the Disney sausage factory. And no matter how good the ingredients, anything that goes through a sausage factory is gonna taste like sausage.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with one more movie in this pulp/weird fiction block, A Whisperer in Darkness. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter for more ramblings on movies and other nerdy pursuits. And leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.