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In Defense Of - John Carter

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

It’s the story of a man transported to a distant world, feeling more at home there than his native Earth…but it was written 97 years before Avatar.

It’s the story of a man who gains incredible power and abilities when his body is subjected to a weaker gravity and atmosphere than the one he grew up in…but it was written 26 years before Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1.

It’s the story of a mercenary rogue who falls in love with a princess…but it was written 65 years before Star Wars.

Avatar. Superman. Star Wars. All blockbusters. And yet John Carter bombed. Even worse? John Carter was called derivative of the franchises I just listed. Even fucking Avatar…the most derivative movie that could ever be…unless someone gets the bright idea for ‘Calculus: The Movie’. Now excuse me while I have a Bruce Banner moment.

The story is simple. A man who has lost everything finds a reason to live again in a strange, far away land. That story was around before Edgar Rice Burroughs put pen to paper and it’s still around today. No, instead look to the details…the world-building…and I found it to be fascinating; the red-skinned, humanoid Martians, the green-skinned, four-armed Tharks, the god-like Therns, powerful ninth-ray technology, airships that fly on sunlight, blind, giant white apes and so on and so on. This is the imagination of a man in 1912 married beautifully with 21st century movie-making. Andrew Stanton, once part of the elite Pixar cadre of directors, makes his live action debut here and is able to, with the help of screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, brush the dust off this early 20th century tale and make it seem fresh. Look, I mucked my way through A Princess of Mars, the first of the Barsoom Chronicles and basis for much of this movie…and it reads like it was written in 1912. You can tell it was serialized in magazines then stitched together for a book. Asylum Films, makers of Z-grade cinematic ‘ugh’, did a more direct adaptation, and…well, let’s just say the low production values weren’t its only problem! Stanton and his screenwriters forge a tale that is true to the heart of the Burroughs original but infuse it with humor and fun. This film does exactly what I said in my review of Jodorowsky’s Dune, you’ve got to get into the source material and mess with it just a bit so that it survives the adaptation from one medium to a new one. Apparently, I disagree with the majority of critics when I say the film accomplished that in spades.

“So if it’s so great, Mr. Internet-Reviewer-Man,” I can hear you say, “why’d it bomb?” Well, either you’re asking that or I’m developing schizophrenia…your call. First off, I’d blame Disney’s marketing…or distinct lack thereof. This film had little to no build up or fanfare. Being released in the “dead zone” of March…the lull before the summer movie season ramps up in May…certainly didn’t help matters, ESPECIALLY when it’s a movie they spent $250 million on. Tying into this…the damn name of the film: John Carter. Right off the bat, can you tell me what films out there are just a name? I’ll give you some clues: Lincoln, Ghandi, Ray, Jobs, Amadeus. Look, I have a mantra I live by and sadly, it hasn’t failed me yet: There is no bottom limit to human intelligence. I’d wager that most of the people that stayed away from this film might have thought John Carter was a real person. Why not call it John Carter of Mars? Well, because the geniuses in marketing argued that movies with the word “Mars” in it don’t do well in theatres. Really? Eyeroll…okay, what are they basing that off of? Apparently there was an animated feature called “Mars Needs Moms” where martians are kidnapping earthling mothers that bombed at the box office. Buddy, I gotta tell you, if that’s your plotline, Mars ain’t the problem…but maybe that’s just me. Okay, so maybe Mars is toxic…call it The Barsoom Chronicles or something. At least that gets people asking “what’s a Barsoom?” But here’s the last thing that I find to be VERY telling. The movie was INCREDIBLY popular overseas, pulling in over $211 million in foreign box office compared to the mere $73 million it pulled at home. My understanding is that Russians in particular really liked it. Had the US box office numbers equaled the foreign, we’d be looking at a sequel coming up.

And honestly, it’s a damn shame that it’s not coming. The way the story was structured, making us believe that Edgar Rice Burroughs was John Carter’s nephew…and thus how he came across this weird tale of other worlds as well as providing the mechanism for Carter’s return to his beloved new home. The doors opened by the world-building of this first and only film…now left to remain ajar. It’s a damn shame…and it deserved better.

“Well, maybe the weak link was in the cast,” I hear, o invisible internet voice. No…I don’t buy that either. Sure, Taylor Kitsch wasn’t really on anyone’s radar before or after this (especially now after Battleship)…but I really can’t fault his performance in this. Lynn Collins? If I were to mention Olympus Mons, does that give me away? No no, her acting was fine. Sure, she might come off as stilted, but hello…royalty, she’s supposed to be stilted. And seriously…like Olympus Mons…but like, two of ‘em. Just sayin’, if I was Carter, hell yeah, I’d stay too. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas...absolutely wonderful, then you find out that he did the entire role on freakin’ stilts! And even while typing this I can hear his “Vorginia” in my head. Thomas Hayden Church and Polly Walker create two Thark villains that you truly hate…always the mark of fine acting mixed with good writing. Mark Strong as Matai Shang and Dominic West as Sab Than continue the fine British acting tradition of bringing vile villains to life…one as a manipulative Thern, the other as the leader of the war-like city of red Martians called Zodanga. Even the players with small parts do an exceptional job. In particular, I’d give nods to Bryan Cranston and James Purefoy as Col. Powell and Kantos Kan respectively. Both characters are present in serious moments and yet the actors infuse just a light touch of comedy that makes their scenes perfect.

So…why did John Carter fail? I honestly don’t know. Maybe I watched a different movie from everyone else. Maybe I’m continuing my personal trend of loving Disney movies that no one else seems to like (stay tuned for my defense of 2013’s summer bomb, The Lone Ranger…yeah, I liked it too). But I’m pretty convinced that since I own the same movie on blu-ray that I saw in the theatre, Disney’s not just playing a cruel trick on me in particular. No. The movie I saw and thoroughly enjoyed is out there for everyone to see…and I’ll never tire of telling people that they should go and see it. While science fiction didn’t start with Burroughs’ tale, it is one of the important mile-markers…and if you’re a fan of the genre, you’re doing yourself an injustice by overlooking this harshly attacked, completely misunderstood gem. Do yourself a favor, slip the bonds of Jasoom and wander the red sands of Barsoom…I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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