The buzz around John Carter makes it seem less like a movie and more like a vague cultural event which the average person on the street doesn’t really understand. Through plenty of fault from the studio and the people who made it, the movie is already being discussed with a high level of cynicism; either it’s a misstep for Pixar, or marketing mistake, or a misplaced tribute to Steve Jobs. Contemporary criticism and commentary has gone into insider-ism overdrive.
But who cares about John Carter’s budget and what it does and doesn’t represent for the movie business? How did we feel about the movie in general, and would we recommend it to others? As it turns out, after watching John Carter, it’s not an event at all. It’s just a movie. And it’s a fun movie, with a likable lead actor, some pleasing aesthetics and an adorable alien dog.
Mild spoilers for John Carter ahead.
The film’s opening titles assert the film is based on the story “John Carter of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the first novel in the series was called A Princess of Mars, and the first story published in this universe “Under the Moons of Mars.” To me, this meant the filmmakers were indicating the movie was based on the whole saga; the story of John Carter of Mars, and not necessarily the first book. However, it borrows most of its plot from A Princess of Mars, which is cool, because that book is an origin story, and origin stories are fun.
How much do you need to know about the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels before seeing this film? Nothing. How much do you need to know about Mars and science fiction? Nothing. This is a movie designed for everyone, and it’s not done so in the style of a throwback Flash Gordon serial, but instead done in the style of a John Carter movie. How the hell could it do that? Is John Carter an original type of movie, the likes of which we’ve never seen? Kind of. But not really.
For someone who doesn’t know (or care) that John Carter predates Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars prequels or any of the other stuff it will remind you of, then some of the political machinations between the various factions on Mars will seem like old hat. And, unfortunately for some of the pacing of the film, this kind of thing isn’t handled well. It feels clunky and boring. But that’s because it is. Luckily, a cool protagonist is dropped into all of this to make things more exciting.
The character of John Carter in the first novel, though interesting in a sense, is fairly thin. And he’s pretty thin here too. He’s got principles, but he doesn’t really want to be on anyone’s side. The contemporary screenplay does a nice job of making John Carter both sympathetic to the Union’s treatment of the Native Americans, and also laissez faire enough about it to be consistent with his source material.
But the movie truly begins when John Carter wakes up on Mars. We could talk endlessly about how he gets there and why, but it really doesn’t matter. Because when he does, it’s awesome. The gravity differences between Earth and Mars, and his bone structure allow John Carter to jump incredible heights and distances. Also, he can punch people to death with one blow. When he first tries to get his footing in this new, alien world, the visual effects are so impressive that you don’t even think about them for one second. All you’re thinking is, “Wow! Look at John Carter go!”
The Tharks, the four-armed green variety of Martians would also agree with you, as they primarily love watching John Carter leap tall boulders in a single bound. Once teamed up with the Tharks and his loyal space dog, Woola, the movie’s level of charm is ridiculously high. Part of this is thanks to the casting of Taylor Kitsch, who doesn’t play it overly macho or overly brooding. Instead, he’s a buff weirdo, sort of doing his thing, jumping around, saving people, and making short concise speeches. At no point do you even second-guess how much you’re rooting for Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter, although you’re not particularly worried about him either. For the most part, the movie is too good looking to concern itself with a real plot.
All the requisite action/adventure movie epic tropes are here. The hero is beaten, gets captured, escapes, has a cool victory, is captured again, finds new allies, finds new enemies, has a relationship, etc. All of it taken individually could be viewed as tedious, but somehow, through the powerful and charming aesthetics, none of it is dull. It may be getting away with some of this because it possesses the same basic conflict as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but is visually and emotionally more pleasing on every level. In both films, the good guys needs to unite an indigenous alien-looking species with an indigenous human-looking species, to defeat a common foe. But the Gungans and the people of Naboo are boring and/or irritating. The Tharks and Helions are cool and charming and their various weapons and vehicles are pleasing to the eye, and not schlocky and garish.
Of the supporting characters, I have to say I prefered John Carter’s little space dog Woola to Deja (Lynn Collins), the princess of Mars. Collins did a fine job with the material she was given, but she’s sort of out-charmed by Kitsch. It’s almost like they were afraid to cast an Eva Green or someone who might actually be really, really way more charming than John Carter. But Woola is really cute, and watching him jet around after John Carter is maybe the best part of the film.
And it is here where John Carter is truly winning: favoring form over function. They clearly didn’t worry if you cared about any of these characters; instead, they just had everyone in the movie entertain the audience as much as possible. For the most part, it works. Are there dull moments? Certainly. Is it slightly too long? Yes. Would I have written it differently? (Yes, of course! Make John Carter lose his powers, and then give those powers back! Oh wait, this isn’t Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance....)
But none of that matters, because we go to the movies sometimes just to be entertained. Cutely, the Tharks initially think Carter’s name is “Virginia” when he tells Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe) where’s he from. So, when a whole arena of Tharks chant his name in encouragement they’re saying “Virginia. Virginia. Virginia.” Through beautiful/deft visual effects, and charming performances from everyone involved, John Carter will make you want to chant right along with the Tharks. Jump, Virginia! Jump!
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.