Mar 12 2012 10:00am

Cynicism Aside, John Carter is a Charmer

John Carter movie review

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.

John Carter movie review

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!”

John Carter movie review

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.

John Carter movie review

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

Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
Ryan - agree with the review. While somewhat clunky in part, the movie is a lot of fun. I also liked the ending, which was well handled. (I won't spoil it.)
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I enjoyed the movie. It was quite a bit better than the various trailers implied.
When he awakens on Mars was particularly well done.
Woola was a lot of fun (as he was in the books). I hadn't quite pictured him as that fast, but hey, it he was a hoot. I would have preferred they had spent some more time showing Carter building up Woola's friendship (like the books) and a bit less on the front.
The Tharks as a whole were pretty well done. My mentle picture had them a bit bulkier, but the scenes with them charging as a horde were pretty spectacular.
I didn't think Carter's flashbacks were really needed. I would have preferred them sticking with the mysterious immortal from the books.
nadav shner
3. nadav1
An accurate review, somewhat campy and timid, impassione and cool headed

In other words, wait for the DVD, so not worh the expensive ticket.
James Whitehead
4. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
Thanks for the review. Taking my two boys to see it - either matinee, or when it comes to our second run theathre.

My oldest boy wanted the book once he saw the trailer. So my wife bought a nice multi-volume edition from Barnes & Noble & now my younger son is reading it. ;-)

Sarah Hale
5. rocketshale
I enjoyed watching it on the large screen, with the 3D. The movie was very entertaining. I was a bit surprised when we walked out of the theater after the end at it was already that late. I hadn't realized that I had been sitting in the theater for over two hours. So, entertaining, yes. Agreed, some parts of the movie could have moved along a little faster, and some parts could have been edited out, but overall, good fun.

There was never any doubt that the good guys would win and the bad guys would lose, or that the victory would be won through a big fight scene, rather than diplomacy, but even knowing that, it was no less satisfying to watch.

Also, Woola is all kinds of adorable. I want one. :}
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
My girlfriend and I had the same reaction. We were like "whoa! time warp!"

I think young kids would really like it. It's very old-fashion fun.
Irene Gallo
7. Irene
I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I thought I would as well. They seemed to have just enough story to get by on, with a lot of fun in the mix. And loved the flying machine desings. My biggest gripe was that the armour looked like plastic molds.
James Whitehead
8. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@6ryancbritt, that's what I thought. This would've made a great summer blockbuster/drive-in movie (shows my age I know, but what can you do). I wonder why the early release?

S Cooper
9. SPC
Woola was definitely a hit at the showing I saw - there was this little snicker all through the theater anytime he came on screen. I loved the airships too - they certainly didn't match what I pictured from the books, but they were AWESOME.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
The sense of humor in the movie really defined it; from "Virginia" to the (canonical!) pratfalls at the begining, to the slapstick flier crashes...all handled deftly & with a wry self-effacing charm that...well, YEAH EFF YEAH JOHN CARTER!
Natasa Charlotte
11. Natasa
Great to see a positive review. Lytherus got my hopes down until I read this and I'm really looking forward to seeing this now!
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
I thought the movie, which included elements of the first 3 books, was really much better than I was expecting. I hope that word of mouth makes it earn back so that there can be sequels, but it did not open strong. My wife loved it as well.

The one thing that did bother me was that in all the books, JC is known as the best swordsman in 2 worlds and the swordfighting was not that great. I imagine JC as more enjoying the swordfighting, more of an Errol Flynn than as earnest as he was played.
Ryan Britt
13. ryancbritt
Good call. The swordfighting could have been more of the Errol Flynn variety. But the swords themselves were pretty nifty.
Bill Stusser
14. billiam
My eight year old daughter loved this movie. I really liked it too, but seeing her sit forward in her seat with her mouth hanging open and a look of wonderment on her face was worth the price of the tickets alone. Her favorite character was, of course, Dejah. She's an eight year old that loves princesses, what can I say.

I agree with the Errol Flynn sword fighting comments above. Maybe they thought that a modern audience wouldn't know that a cavalry officer would know how to sword fight and so wouldn't buy it?
15. AlBrown
I very much enjoyed the movie, and was disappointed that it did not do better. Before I went, I had heard that there was too much time spent on Earth, but having seen the movie, I think that paid off very nicely in the long run. It made Carter a much more sympathetic hero. And the juxtaposition of buring his wife with his fierce battle with the Martians made what would have been a throwaway action setpiece into a touching moment.
I deliberately didn't go back and reread the books, but the movie felt to me like it was true to the spirit of the books that thrilled me in my youth. I like the fact that Dejah Thoris was not a princess who needed saving, she was intelligent, brave, and capable in her own right (and I think that comes from the source material).
I loved the comic touches. I thought the tharks were really well done, and totally believably animated. Like everyone says above, Woola was absolutely wonderful.
And I loved the twist at the end.
I would like to see this movie show some legs due to good word of mouth, and make enough so there are more adventures to come.
16. Ki
I haven't read the John Carter books, but my dad loved them as a kid and still speaks fondly of them now, so today I cajoled him and my mom and younger sister into going. All four of us enjoyed the heck out of the movie--even my mom, who'd been quite reluctant going in, but who was won over by the humor and charm. The movie doesn't pretend to be more than it is, but for what it is it's sure entertaining.
17. ChuckV
I'm upset that the movie doesn't use a big thing from the books. The books say that John Carter arrives on Mars in his birthday suit and all the Martians, red and green, are naked except for harnesses which hold their ornaments and weapons. I can see not doing the everyone naked thing but JC could have arrived in the buff. That was part of the appeal of the book. He arrives on a strange new world naked and alone. Someone above commented that Deja Thoris was an action princess and that may have been in the source material. Nope. While brave and regal she needed a lot of rescuing and is not in much of the first books because she's lost or imprisoned somewhere. Woola looks like he could be a loyal Martian dog. (Not a "space dog" as the review called him.)
18. Jack Speese
I have read all of the John Carter books (I have the entire set, plus the entire set of the Tarzan books and many others by ERB) and I thought that this was an awesome movie. The characters were interpreted in a modern way yet still true to the originals, and having the Therns visit Earth and that medallion was a neat way to explain how John Carter was "telegraphed" to Mars/Barsoom, something which was always rather vague in the books. Granted the first one was written in 1912, and although they might seem quaint by modern standards, to me that is also part of their charm, and why I still enjoy re-reading them now and again. They are just plain fun adventure sci-fi stories, and there's nothing wrong with that. Undoubtedly that explains why they (along with ERB's most famous character, Tarzan) are still popular today. Sometimes I want something that's just pure entertainment. There is certainly a lot of material available for sequels, and I hope that there will be some.
Santiago Casares
19. Santiago
Great review, Ryan.

I really enjoyed the movie, and was surprised how the media had declared D.O.A. weeks before it even opened.
20. Ghostbaron
I was looking to really not like the movie (from what I had seen in the trailers).....but I have to say it was intertaining, and I sadly had to grin way to many times with scenes dealing with Woola. I hope that with DVD sales that we might be able to get another movie (with some minor tweaking) or two to enjoy in the future.
21. Kerry Hennigan
I enjoyed the movie, especially the vintage depiction of Mars. The Tharks were especially well done, and Woola was very appealing. The plot was unnecessarily complicated, I thought, making the movie too long, and a times when the action slowed to allow for some quiet scenes - especially between John Carter and the princess, unevenly paced. I left the theatre with mixed feelings, but overall felt that it was well worth seeing Mars depicted so well.
22. Novashannon
Read and loved all the books, and loved the movie. I am truly puzzled that it has been panned before release, and I think that adversely affected its popularity. When will people learn not to trust big reviewers! they also panned the real Star Wars!My only big complaint is that the Red Martians were not red!
Peter Tijger
23. Peter-Tijger
I sas the movie today, together with my 13-year old son. And yes, I loved it !!!
I have read the comics when I was a kid, bought/read all books in English later. And I always wondered why John Carter wasn't as well known as that other character Burroughs created. But finally a movie has been made. It was to be seen what Disney would do with it, but they pulled it off in my opinion, they made a family movie out of it that still satisfies me as fan of the original material.
All the comparisons with other movies sound like rubbish to me. Yes, very comparable to Star wars and other movies, that's very obvious. But it's all those other movies that have to pay respect to John Carter, they are the ones that borrowed from it, not the other way around. But that's something the big audience doesn't see/knows. Ah well.....I spent a good afternoon today and had fun. Now go work on the sequel.
24. Cristi
Fun to watch, but way too long.
The movie should have started when Carter arrived on Mars, and should have ended when he married the princess. The whole Mars to Earth loop-back and the western style adventures were all too dull and made the movie hard to bare.
25. caramadra
I hated the way the alien dog was hit and kicked. Sick!!!
26. Cailin
I love Syfy movies, this starts as a Western, (I don't care for) then is terrible as a Syfy. I'm glad they showed the aliens as many syfy movies don't or show just a glympse. Other than that I can't say anything good to say about it...worse than a B movie. The abuse of the alien "dog' is sick, Disney?? What the heck? Its no "Alien" with Sigourney Weaver. No offence to people who liked the movie. I think it's terrible....
27. Cold Drake
This movie is mediocre at best, dull for the most part. I find it odd that so many geeks on the net are defending it but also contantly rag on things like Iron Man 2 and Clash of the Titans. Those films are also flawed but at least they're not boring. It's like a hive mentality.

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