Short review: a good old fashioned swashbuckler movie with a lot of humor, but one that's dragged down by giving testosterone hero John Carter a "sad" backstory. Stay for Woola's cuteness, Dejah Thoris kicking butt, John Carter leaping, the flight scenes in 3-D, and the surprisingly warm father-daughter subplot. As far as a Burroughs adaptation goes it's very good but not perfect, but it's got everything your inner eleven year old wants: the coolest dog in the world, a four armed best buddy, and winning the hand of a gorgeous princess with swordfighting.
After a whole century without an adaptation...am I the only one bugged by how they chose to pronounce things? I always pronounced Issus as Aye-sus (same as Isis), and Dejah Thoris as DEE-juh Thor-Us.
The movie's take on Dejah Thoris, the original work's greatest dragging liability, is a success. She had to be changed somehow and what they did worked.
She actually uses her great intelligence in several scenes to figure out Thern technology and translate inscriptions. She's less a movie girlfriend and more a Spock-like smart sidekick.
Making Dejah Thoris a supergenius is actually a pretty good substitution in the story. Previously, Dejah Thoris was captured all the time because she was the world's most beautiful woman and often did things that were self-destructive or moronically out of character, like suddenly insist she was going to marry Sab Than out of nowhere. If Dejah Thoris was a scientist on the verge of a great discovery, it makes sense villains trying to stifle that discovery would try to have her killed or captured.
By the way, when I first heard Dejah was going to be a scientist in the movie version, I was totally shocked because she was so useless. But actually, Dejah being a scientist is a pretty legit interpretation of what she was actually doing. Take this selection from Chapter X of "A Princess of Mars."
“What is your name?” asked Lorquas Ptomel, addressing the prisoner.
“Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium.”
“And the nature of your expedition?” he continued.
“It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father’s father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests,” replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice.
“We were unprepared for battle,” she continued, “as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted. The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men."
The idea she might be a scientist is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of these events, although most people figure Dejah was just there as a royal administrator.
Taylor Kitsch, surprisingly, did a good job as John Carter. He brought to the character a kind of Eastwood-esque serious manliness, and a very Southern chivalry that's the core of the character. He politely refers to everyone as either "sir" or "ma'am." Even the bad guys.
The scenes where John Carter jumps around like a rubber ball under low Martian gravity were really effective and infectiously exhilarating and fun.
One of the things I always thought was unique about John Carter of Mars is, John Carter goes native and adapts to Barsoom really fast, and because Mars is so darn cool, prefers to stay there rather than go back to boring old earth. I never understood why Dorothy Gale wanted to go back to drab, black and white Kansas when she was a universally beloved heroine in the much cooler fantasy world of Oz. To its credit, the movie gets this totally right: when John Carter is forced to leave Mars and the girl he loved we feel the wrenching pain as he returns to Earth a million miles away, never knowing if he'll ever return. The painful removal from Mars, something that later became the emotional core of the Adam Strange series, was perfectly captured here.
The movie's strongest and surprisingly emotional subplot is Tars Tarkas's father-daughter relationship with Sola, the only Martian female to know her real father and family. Tars Tarkas is protective of her, and love for her motivates everything he does. Since Sola knew love and family among otherwise loveless and unsentimental creatures like the Tharks, Sola stands out as a screwup who doesn't fit into society perfectly. This is the only time the otherwise drab "sad hero" backstory for John Carter is actually used to really good effect. Because he recognizes something of himself in the big Thark.
There was one moment in John Carter of Mars that got an ERB-fanboy charge of excitement out of me.
While in the wilderness, gentleman John Carter and his friends were chased by the hordes of Warhoon, a type of Green Martian more savage and ferocious than others of their kind. The creators of the movie totally nailed it. They looked the part: feral, cruel, covered in bones, scarred and fearsome. It was something I'd waited to see brought to life since I read the books as a Tarzan-loving kid. The presence of the hordes of Warhoon was an indulgence that, according to an interview, Andrew Stanton fought for, to the point he "traded off" an appearance by banths, saving the fierce, distinctive Martian lions for a sequel.
Strictly speaking, the presence of the hordes of Warhoon wasn't entirely necessary to the story, but it showed a fannish gusto to bring Barsoom to screen. I wish there had been more moments like that because there were so few. This was also why Green Lantern and Percy Jackson were such empty movies despite coming from such innovative source material: they saved everything interesting for the sequels, assuming they had all the time in the world.
The lesson here for future film-makers is, even when doing movies intended to be franchise starters, treat every movie like it was the last one. Because there's a heartbreaking chance it just might be.
It feels like a dick move to criticize a movie by mentioning all the things it didn't have, but was it impossible to show some people in the background playing Jetan? No reference to even the merest hints of the existence of the First Born, Kaldanes and the Okarians? No ulsios or soraks scuttling around in the background? A huge chunk of the movie was set around Zodanga. So, no background appearance by someone who is undisguisably Rapas the Ulsio, Zat Arras or Fal Sivas? Nobody swearing "by their first ancestor?" No shots of mastodon-like zitidars? (Thoats are the only beasts of burden used in the movie version of Barsoom.) No one person in the background in a diamond harness who might be a Gatholian? No dropped hints of a lost Ptarthian princess who would later be revealed as Thuvia in the next movie?
All this sounds fannish and nitpicky and I understand that. But I was under the impression from all the press materials I was going to get a movie by lifelong Barsoom fans bringing Barsoom to screen for the first time after literally an entire century of waiting, given gobs of money and freedom. I was expecting the Martian equivalent of the fan friendly, easter egg filled Marvel movies or Peter Jackson's accurate Lord of the Rings. I was led to believe, somewhat deceptively, I was going to get continuity porn instead of a sanitized Hollywood adaptation. If Stanton and Chabon and the rest really were the Barsoom aficionados they say they are, wouldn't they have known Helium's defining skyline and physical characteristic is it's defined by twin mile-high towers? If Barsoom is a world of eternal youth, why is it Dejah Thoris's grandfather Tardos Mors looked so visibly older than she did?
There was a scene in world-traveler John Carter's study filled with parts and objects from around the world…and they couldn't have crammed in a reference to Tarzan, La, Opar, or Caprona? At least the army situation room in Captain America has a map of Wakanda.
At least they used the Martian standards of measurements: xats, karads, and so on...and remembered Kaor, the Martian greeting, and that Earth and Venus were respectively called Jasoom and Cosoom. That was something!
The notion that something is either for the hardcore fans OR for a general audience is a false, nonexistent dilemma, and a sign of a limited thinker. A characteristic of the successful adaptation is how "full" they feel.
Maybe I'm spoiled rotten by the Marvel movies and by Lord of the Rings and so I expected something unfair from this movie. After all, the norm for adaptations of beloved geek properties is for them to be visibly made by people that just don't care.
There were some changes to the material in adaptation from the book to the movie, but like all the changes in the recent Star Trek movie, they were ones I saw happening when the movie was announced: there were three evil Green Martian chieftains, and so economy insisted they be reduced to just one, played wonderfully by Thomas Hayden Church.
A lot of people said that the new early appearance and prominence of the Therns was rewriting Burroughs's Mars mythology. It all made perfect sense to me, though. We learn in Warlord of Mars that the Therns, as a result of their false religion, come and go as they please on Barsoom, and after the destruction of their culture, Matai Shang, Hekkador and Father of the Therns, hid in the city of Kaol where their cult still had power.
The idea of the Holy Therns as a behind the scenes power cynically exploiting people and present at the beginning of the John Carter story was totally in character with the Therns' modus operandi. On the other hand it's unlikely there is going to be a race of Black Pirates (or the First Born), because Barsoom doesn't need two races of false gods.
The Therns here are totally bald, just like in the books. I missed the humanizing touch of vanity they had where they wore elaborate blonde wigs to disguise their baldness.
Making the Therns major baddies gives the movie a strong central villain, something not in the original novel, and more closely ties the Edgar Rice Burroughs finds the journal frame story into the rest of it. I'd count that as a success.
Zodanga is now a "predator city" on legs able to move around. I have to give the writers credit for this. It's the most Burroughs-esque idea Burroughs never had a colorful, exotic and improbable locale. And it led to a great flying scene that was the most successful use of 3-D in the movie.
I wish all I could do is just talk about the John Carter of Mars movie, but unfortunately movies don't happen in a vacuum.
A lot of Paleolithic movie critics and entertainment reporters raised in the days before nerds took over the world deeply resent the sudden dominance of genre fiction in pop culture and hate writing about science fiction, comic books, pulp novels and video games. Even so, the sheer disproportionate, fanged viciousness directed toward "John Carter" is shocking.
Because they hate writing about nerd stuff, many entertainment reporters take a jeering, cowardly, jackal-like glee in tearing down a member of the herd that looks weak and limping. Nobody can be crueler than the cowardly, thwarted, and passive-aggressive.
This is why I don't listen to people who say science fiction or the superhero movie "is dead." They write that not because they think it's true, but because they desperately wish it was.
The effect of all the rooting for John Carter to fail and pronouncing it a dead on arrival bomb leaves me angry, hurt and heartsick. Imagine there's this book series you've loved for a lifetime. Imagine there's a movie version coming out, and before it's even released, it's proclaimed a derivative waste nobody will like, with source material forgotten by time nobody remembers or cares about anymore. Taking a risk on believing in something you love is seen as a laughably foolhardy misstep that the studio in question will be punished for doing.
As for the quality of the movie? Definitely worth seeing. After all, John Carter of Mars adaptations don't come along every year - or every hundred years.