Review: John Carter (2012 movie)

I enjoyed the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I first read them in my early teens and retain a great deal of affection for them still. Flawed they certainly are, with preposterously flowery dialog, implausible, formulaic, and coincidence-driven plotting, and so on, but the books are also remarkably imaginative and often pretty entertaining. They enjoyed lasting popularity and inspired many imitators.

John Carter is an adaptation of ERB’s first novel, A Princess of Mars, originally published in slightly abbreviated form as a serial starting in 1912, that is, a hundred years before the release of the film. It’s a delight to see Barsoom brought to life with superb CGI. The six-limbed Green Men are almost exactly as Burroughs described them, and Woola the calot, the gigantic and incredibly speedy Martian counterpart to a dog, is just like the Woola of the books, except for being demoted from ten legs to six.

As that suggests, there are of course changes, and I don’t automatically reject them. Making Woola a hexapod makes some sense both biologically and in terms of computer animation. Nor do I object to seeing Dejah Thoris depicted as a scientist and a capable swordswoman. In the novel she enters the story as part of a scientific expedition, and while in the original she didn’t engage in swordplay it’s at least implied that she would have been able to do it given the opportunity. I’m fine with the film’s adding some things to Carter’s backstory on Earth.

But a lot of the deviations from the original I found pointless and annoying. Take the sequence out west before Carter gets to Mars: First we get a bar scene recycled out of a half-dozen spaghetti Westerns -- or maybe Rango, where it was a joke. Then there’s a dumb subplot involving an attempt to press Carter into the cavalry and Carter’s repeated failed attempts to escape. And why on Jasoom make his friend and colleague from the original novel an enemy instead?

I’m also annoyed that the Ninth Ray was turned into a magical superweapon that adds nothing to the story and leads to an out-of-place opening scene that’s like something out of a recent George Lucas movie. (That is not a compliment.)

Other gripes, minor and major:

  • The Martian moons are always in the exact same position relative to one another in the sky. Burroughs got their appearance wrong from an astronomical standpoint, but at least he had them moving with respect to one another.
  • Carter’s leaping ability in the lower gravity of Mars is overdone to the point of being downright laughable.
  • The stilted 19th-century dialog of the novels has too often been replaced with movie clichés that were awful even when they were original. Heaven help us, Carter even has a line of the “we didn’t start this but by golly we’ll end it” variety.
  • I personally regret not seeing any of the murals of ancient Mars Burroughs described as often seen on the walls in the dead cities.
  • Rather than have Carter learn Martian the hard way during his captivity as in the original novel, he gets fed some Magic Language Potion or something.
  • And while I can justify leaving out the atmosphere plant, I still missed it.

My single biggest objection is to their changing the Therns (who were not present in the first novel) from a fraudulent priesthood into interplanetary shape-changing superbeings with magic Rolexes and interplanetary teleportation amulets. (This suggests inter alia a major amount of misunderstanding the whole idea behind the second novel, The Gods of Mars.) Carter gets to Mars by accidentally using one of the amulets, but his original body appears to stay behind on Earth. Unless I'm missing something, it doesn’t appear to work that way for the Therns, and it doesn't make particular sense. One might protest that the originally novel gets him there in an unclear and unscientific fashion, but at least it wasn't internally inconsistent.

Despite all these complaints, if you haven’t seen it I do mildly recommend doing so. Just be prepared for the usual mindless stupidities too characteristic of modern filmmaking. It has done pretty miserably at the box office in the U.S. (though it did better overseas and was a big hit in Russia), so I’m not sure whether there’s a sequel in the works. If not, then maybe in 10 years or so somebody else will pick it up and do it right, with a much better cast and greater appreciation for the source material.

Here's a trailer:

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