Andrew Stanton is best known for directing “A Bug’s Life”, “Finding Nemo”, and “WALL-E” for Pixar Animation Studios. But his most recent directorial attempt had him tackle a live action film, a live action film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” series of novels.
The novels were about a man named John Carter and his adventures on the planet Mars aka Barsoom. The novels were quite popular and attempts to make them into full-length films have been around since as early as the 1930’s. Actually, animator Bob Clampett, wanted to make an animated film based on these books, but failed to do so. Had he succeeded, he would have probably beat Walt Disney in creating America’s first full-length animated feature.
But, that failure wouldn’t stop other filmmakers from trying to adapt these novels to the big screen. And finally, 70+ years later, the Disney Studios became the lucky company to achieve this feat. The film, entitled “John Carter”, sadly flopped at the box office. Could the lengthy period in development hell be to blame? Or is the film really bad? Well, let’s find out for ourselves in this review. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “John Carter”.
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
So the film opens up on the landscape of Mars, known as Barsoom, where a narrator explains to us what’s going on. Basically, life DOES exist on Mars…umm…Barsoom, but it’s not a very peaceful life. There exists a city on Mars…umm….Barsoom named Zodanga that’s a bit of a usurper. Their leader, Sab Than, played by Dominic West, goes around to all the cities of Mars…umm…Barsoom and attacks them.
And every city falls! That is, every city, except for the city of Helium, which still holds out against its invader. Hmm…a city holding out against a conquering invader that has conquered every other city but it? Where have I seen this before?
Anyway, Sab Than is having an airship war with other fliers of Helium, as the movie begins. Sab Than is about to lose the battle when suddenly a blue ray comes out of nowhere and obliterates the fighting Heliumites, an act which puzzles Sab Than.
As if that wasn’t strange enough, three robed bald white men then descend from the sky onto Sab Than’s airship. This further puzzles Sab Than.
The three men then give him a blue K’Nex arm that apparently is the source of those destructive blue rays. They tell Sab Than that if he uses this weapon of destruction, he can gain control of all of Mars…umm…Barsoom.
This doesn’t puzzle Sab Than, rather it pleases him, because as everyone knows, all villains are keen on taking over their world! And if I were the Nostalgia Critic, I would proceed with this joke,
but I am not the Nostalgia Critic, so I’m just going to move on.
We then cut to New York City in the year 1881. Umm…ok, so I’m guessing all that city-state fighting that we just saw on Mars…umm…Barsoom is happening simultaneously with these Earth events? Ok, I can follow that.
What is there to see in New York City? Our main character, of course, John Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch.
We see him walking hurriedly to the telegram office wherein he sends out a telegram beckoning his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (nod to the author, perhaps?),
to come see him.
But when Edgar, played by Daryl Sabara, arrives in New York City, he’s met with very sad news: John Carter is dead! Wow, barely 5 minutes of screen time and the title character is killed off!
John Carter’s attorney explains the situation to Edgar. Apparently, John Carter’s death was a shock to everyone including his doctor. Edgar, saddened by his uncle’s death, asks to pay his respects
which brings us to John Carter’s extremely weirdly built mausoleum. It’s spherical-ish, has no keyhole, and can only be opened from the inside. So it’s basically impregnable by any grave robber who would dare rob John Carter.
The attorney then gives Edgar John Carter’s private journal, an item specifically bequeathed to him. After the attorney leaves, Edgar begins reading the journal and the events are unfolded before our eyes via the use of flashbacks.
The flashback begins in the year 1868 in the Arizona Territory. Ok, so we’ve moved from Mars…umm…Barsoom to Earth in 1881 to Earth in 1868? Umm…ok, I guess.
We see John Carter exploring the territory in search of a hidden cave filled with gold. The cave is denoted by a spider according to a map that he possesses. But his search is stopped short as he’s captured by some members of the United States Cavalry who seek…well, forcibly seek…his aid in fighting the EVIL Comanches!
John Carter refuses and manages to escape from the Cavalry’s clutches. While being chased by the Cavalry, he serendipitously comes across the cave, in question! Ever notice how in movies, things that have been in search of for years, always end up being found instantaneously by accident? Why is that?
But, John Carter’s glee is interrupted as a man in the shadows attacks him. Carter defeats the man by shooting him. As he approaches the hopefully dead man, he notices that the hopefully dead man is still alive, clinging to some sort of medallion while reciting words of a foreign nature.
There we go! And just as he says the final words, John Carter picks up the medallion, which causes him to be transported to Mars…umm…Barsoom.
Apparently, the hopefully dead man was a native of the planet Mars…umm…Barsoom and the medallion was a sort of portal device thingamijigger that allowed John Carter to teleport from Earth to Mars…umm…Barsoom as the magic words were being said. Ehh…stranger things have happened!
But of course, John Carter doesn’t realize all this yet! He lies on the sands of Mars…umm…Barsoom wondering where the heck he is, how the heck he got there, what the heck happened to the hopefully dead man, what the heck happened to his cave of gold,
and most importantly, how the heck he’s able to jump long and high distances!
And to make this nightmare even more annoying, he’s captured by some green four-armed, horned creatures known as the Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe, is impressed with John Carter’s jumping abilities. The problem is neither side speaks the other’s language resulting in John Carter giving an amazingly written line:
We then cut to the people of the city Helium, led by their leader, Tardos Mors, played by Ciarán Hinds. They’re upset because Sab Than has broken through Helium’s defenses all because of his new powerful blue K’Nex arm.
Now, wait a minute! Are you telling me that the events that happened in the beginning of the movie are happening at the same time in John Carter’s flashback?! So, we basically started the movie in the past on Mars…umm…Barsoom, and then went TO THE PRESENT DAY ON EARTH, and then BACK to the past on Mars…umm…Barsoom via a flashback?! That’s super confusing! If you want to tell the story in flashback, it’d have made much more sense had you STARTED the movie with John Carter’s death on present day Earth and THEN via the flashback, explain both what’s going on in Mars…umm…Barsoom as well as in John Carter’s past rather than starting with Sab Than gaining his power!
Anywho…Helium’s defenses have been broken through, and it seems that Helium is soon to fall to Sab Than and Zodanga. But there is still hope! Sab Than will bring peace to Mars…umm…Barsoom if Tardos Mors’ daughter, Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins, marries him. Dejah is against this furiously!
Ok, I may be a minority here, but I honestly don’t see what’s so wrong if she does marry him. I understand that Sab Than isn’t to be trusted; but if she marries him, she’ll be close to him and able to keep an eye on his every move. She can see if he’ll truly stick to his word or if he’ll stab them in their backs. And if the need ever arises, she’ll be in the most opportune position to assasinate Sab Than! In either case, peace will reign on Mars…umm…Barsoom!
But nope, that thought never crosses her mind; she’d rather find other ways to bring peace to the city, such as find out what the secret of Sab Than’s blue K’Nex arm is. I forgot to mention that our Princess Dejah is an extremely intelligent, learned scientist and has pretty much figured out that the blue K’Nex arm’s power comes from the supposedly fictional Ninth Ray! She even tries to prove this to her father via a contraption that she invented,
but this doesn’t go well as her contraption is surreptitiously sabotaged by another person.
Wait a minute!
AHA! It’s one of those guys like the hopefully dead guy that John Carter found in the cave. Oh wait a minute, these are like the three bald robed men that gave Sab Than the blue K’Nex arm to begin with! Oho, so maybe they’re running the whole show! Hmm…we’ll have to wait and see!
Anyway, back to John Carter. He’s captured by the Tharks and put in a cell wherein he’s incarcerated. While he’s in the cell, John Carter is visited by Sola, a lowly Thark who gives him a Tower of Babel-type drink that allows him to be able to understand and speak the language(s) of Mars…umm…Barsoom. How the heck does she possess such a liquid? Where in the world did it come from? Why does this liquid exist on a planet that apparently was never visited before by any one from Earth or anywhere else in the solar system? It’s all pretty simple really:
Yep: it’s never explained! Moving on!
John Carter later breaks out of the cell
but is quickly discovered by Tars Tarkas and the other Tharks. They are appalled that John Carter has escaped, but more appalled that he can communicate with them in their language. Tars Tarkas soon realizes that the one to blame for this linguistic miracle is Sola. She must be punished because…it’s apparently a crime to have your prisoners understand your language! How is she punished? By branding, of course!
And the weird thing is, every place on her body has already been branded; her next offense is her last, which I guess means she’ll be put to death. This makes me wonder, what the heck has she done to receive all these brands? I mean, she helps one human being understand the language(s) of Mars…umm…Barsoom, an act that she’s never done before since no human has ever been on Mars…umm…Barsoom, and the punishment for that is branding! This leads me to believe that every other past offense that she’s committed was severely less in menace, yet the punishment was still branding! So any and all crimes seem to be punished the same way: via branding!
Oh well, we can’t worry about that because an aerial battle is taking place above the land of the Tharks. Sab Than’s airship is attacking one of Helium’s airships. Long story short, John Carter gets involved due to his amazing jumping abilities and Civil War training resulting in Sab Than’s retreat. Not only has John Carter helped Helium win that battle, but he also gets a reward: Dejah. Apparently, Dejah ran away from home because she didn’t want to marry Sab Than and snuck aboard one of the ships. When the battle is over, she stays behind on the land of the Tharks and gives herself up to John Carter.
She quickly tries to convince John Carter to teach the people of Helium how to jump like him so that they may be able to defeat Sab Than once and for all, but John Carter has no interest in these wars and wants to get back to his cave of gold.
And after having an astronomy lesson with Dejah, John Carter FINALLY realizes that he’s on another planet! He realizes that he’s on Mars…umm…Barsoom! He also finds out that Earth is known as Jasoom to the Martians…umm…Barsoomians.
But Dejah is skeptical about John Carter’s alleged “Earthliness…umm…Jasoomliness”, so they visit a nearby forbidden temple in order to get some more information about the mystery surrounding John Carter. In there, they discover a set of pictorial representations and ancient wordings that say that the only way for John Carter to get home (well, the only way besides the way involving the medallion and incantation, because John Carter doesn’t know about this yet) is to find the legendary Gates of Iss.
But trouble strikes when they are discovered in the forbidden temple (it’s called “forbidden” for a reason) by the Tharks. Not only are they in trouble, but so is Sola for following them into the temple, even though she was just trying to convince them to leave. And since this is her last offense, Sola is now on death row! Tars Tarkas is extremely upset that John Carter would let Sola commit another mistake which makes John Carter realize that Sola is Tars Tarkas’ daughter.
After hinting to Tars Tarkas that he himself had a daughter once and knows what it’s like to lose one, John Carter gains Tars Tarkas’ sympathy. In return, Tars Tarkas allows John Carter, Dejah, and Sola to surreptitiously escape to find the legendary Gates of Iss.
They escape into the arid deserts of Mars…umm…Barsoom where we see a montage of them travelling (with Dejah leading the way) and occasionally checking each other out.
After a while, Sola realizes that they’re going in the wrong direction and she and John Carter confront Dejah about this. She replies that she was taking them towards Helium as she believes that the Gates of Iss are nothing but a myth. Instead, she had hoped that once John Carter saw the situation of Helium that he would see that their cause is worth fighting for and ally with them. But of course, this doesn’t sway John Carter.
She finally tells him the real reason for her deception: she doesn’t want to marry Sab Than. But John Carter, like me, doesn’t quite understand why she won’t marry Sab Than if it’ll stop the oppression of her people.
I reiterate, she can just assassinate the guy afterwards if she wants or put him in jail or divorce him or something! At least her people will be saved in a bloodless manner! But nope, she prefers to die than to ever get into a marriage with this despot no matter how short it is. I guess I can understand her plight, but it seems like an awfully hard way of going about things.
But again, John Carter isn’t swayed by any of this. So he takes over now and leads Sola and Dejah in the opposite direction. They soon come across a river that apparently leads to the Gates of Iss. They traverse the waters and end up finding the Gates of Iss which look more like Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s “The Tree of Life”, if it were used as a landing strip for Martian…umm…Barsoomian airships.
And through some such magic of the medallion, a hologram appears proving that the Ninth Ray does indeed exist! This news thrills Dejah! The hologram also shows that the way to travel between Earth…umm…Jasoom and Mars…umm…Barsoom, is via a telegraphic inscription of some sort. (Of course, we already know that this is referring to the incantation, but we wait patiently for John Carter to figure it out).
And the last thing that the hologram proves to our dear Dejah is that John Carter is indeed telling the truth about his being from Earth…umm…Jasoom. But before they can rejoice, trouble occurs!
It seems that the leader of the robed bald men found out that John Carter has found the Gates of Iss and gathers together an army of…Martian…umm…Barsoomian creatures to capture and/or destroy John Carter, Dejah, and Sola.
John Carter allows Sola and Dejah to escape, while he tries to take on thousands of Martian…umm…Barsoomian creatures alone. Sigh…there’s a very fine line between bravery and stupidity, my dear John Carter, and I believe you’re greatly overstepping it!
But the battle ends victoriously as Dejah’s father arrives with his airship and strikes the ground scaring the Martian…umm…Barsoomian creatures off. Not only has he come with his army, but the EVIL Sab Than has arrived with him also. Apparently, Sab Than has seen the error of his ways and wants to repent for it via a marriage with Dejah. Hmm…why is this news; wasn’t this the exact same thing he wanted in the beginning of the film? Is the only difference that now he repents for his actions? Is he even sincere in his repentance? Oh well, I’m sure we’ll find out later.
Dejah has returned to the scene and unwillingly accepts Sab Than’s proposal. They all head to Zodanga to prepare for the wedding along with John Carter whom they care for until he’s recovered from his battle wounds. After he’s back to his full strength, Dejah admits to John Carter that she actually knew what the telegraphic inscription was that the hologram was talking about. She withheld the information from him because she STILL wanted him to join Helium’s cause. But as she’s about to marry Sab Than (and doubts that John Carter would’ve ever allied with them to begin with), she decides to tell John Carter the words that will send him back to Earth…umm…Jasoom.
Sigh, no! THESE words:
Dejah then leaves with Sab Than to head to the wedding procession. And before John Carter can say the words, he’s kidnapped by the leader of the bald men who we now know is named Matai Shang.
Through a long and dwindling speech, we discover that Matai Shang and the other robed bald men are Therns, legendary servants of the Goddess. They’re the puppetmasters behind Sab Than’s rule and use him as a pawn in their game of planetary destruction. They claim that they don’t cause destruction, but merely manage it. And why do they want destruction to befall Mars…umm…Barsoom this time? Because Dejah and John Carter have discovered that the Ninth Ray is in fact, real, and the Therns will NOT tolerate that! Once Dejah’s wedding is finalized, they will destroy her and anyone else who knows about the Ninth Ray. Why don’t they just kill them off now instead of waiting for the wedding to be over? Your guess is as good as mine!
After the long explanation, John Carter escapes from Matai Shang’s clutches, jumps onto an airship, and flies away. Oh, Matai, never explain your evil goals until AFTER you’ve actually accomplished them! Now, John Carter’s probably going to try to help Dejah somehow!
And John Carter does JUST that! He picks up Sola and together they fly back to the land of the Tharks to seek Tars Tarkas’ help in fighting the Therns and Sab Than. But, Tars Tarkas has been overthrown by a Thark named Tal Hajus who sentences John Carter to the Thark dungeon where Tars Tarkas is as well. Wow, say that sentence three times fast!
What do the Tharks plan to do with them both? Throw them in a stadium where two blind white apes can eat and dismember them while the rest of the Tharks rejoice.
One: How the heck can anyone look at this creature and think, “APE!”?
Two: Why send blind creatures to destroy your prisoners? Granted, they can use their other senses, but the standoff would be much challenging for the prisoners if the creatures were able to see which, in turn, would make the spectacle more enjoyable to watch by the Tharks! And isn’t that the whole purpose of this punishment? To be a sort of enjoyable torture that the Tharks can delight in?
Oh well, long story short, John Carter and Tars Tarkas manage to defeat the white Apes.
And John Carter stands off with Tal Hajus in an epic, thrilling,
2-second decapitation scene.
So, the rest of the Tharks are now in awe of John Carter and follow him to help Helium against Sab Than and the Therns.
They heroically ride into Zodanga, breaking through walls, riding with speed, being pumped up, and find barely anyone there. Apparently, everyone is at the wedding in HELIUM, not Zodanga! Epic fail, John Carter, epic fail!
Now they have to take an airship to get to Helium in time to stop the wedding. Once they arrive, an epic fight sequence takes place.
This ends with Sab Than’s death and Matai Shang’s escape.
But John Carter and the others don’t mind. They celebrate their victory and John Carter proposes to Dejah who gladly accepts. They get married (the Martian…umm…Barsoomian way) and spend their wedding night together. Later on in the night, John Carter throws his medallion away showing us that he has no more desire to ever return to Earth..umm…Jasoom.
Oh wait, that’s not the end yet. Matai Shang shows up, sticks his medallion into John Carter’s chest, and recites the incantation sending John Carter back to Jasoom…umm…Earth.
John Carter is devastated to return to his cave of gold and spends the next 10 years looking for another medallion on Jasoom…umm…Earth so that he can return to Barsoom…umm…Mars. He finally finds one, but dies shortly after. We finally return to the present with Edgar finishing the diary. The last words in the diary state that Edgar now has to protect John Carter’s body from any Therns on this planet. And that maybe some Therns have already discovered where John Carter’s body is by the time Edgar’s finished reading the extremely long diary. Why didn’t John Carter just start the diary with “ASK NO QUESTIONS, EDGAR, JUST PROTECT MY BODY!”?
Sigh…never mind! Edgar then rushes to the mausoleum and notices pushable letters on it that may possibly open a secret door. In the diary, John Carter says that Edgar is the “key”, so Edgar tries pushing the letters of his name. This doesn’t work.
He then realizes that John Carter never called him “Edgar”, but actually lovingly called him “Ned”.
So, Edgar…umm…Ned tries the letters, “N”, “E”, and “D” and the door to the mausoleum is opened! But there is no body in the mausoleum! Before Ned can try to discover where John Carter’s body is, somebody springs up from behind to attack him. But it’s okay, John Carter suddenly appears and shoots the stranger dead. Ned is shocked at everything!
Apparently, John Carter was never dead; he merely invented the story so that the news would spread and hopefully reach the ears of a Thern (one of the robed men from Mars…umm…Barsoom). Then, a Thern would most definitely try to come to the mausoleum to destroy John Carter’s body. But John Carter wouldn’t be in the mausoleum and instead be waiting outside to shoot the Thern first. And John Carter used Ned as further bait to attract the stranger who we now recognize as being a Thern. I’m sure Ned’s happy about that!
But why exactly does John Carter want to attract a Thern? Well, in his 10 years of searching, John Carter actually DOESN’T find one of those medallions, but knows that all Therns have one. So if he shoots one, he can steal his medallion and use it to get back to Mars…umm…Barsoom.
He then thanks Ned, says goodbye, encourages him to write a book,
and says the incantation while holding the medallion so that he can head back to Mars..umm..Barsoom.
Ok, this is the end finally!
What did I think of this movie?
Well, the story is surprisingly unnecessarily complicated as well as being extremely long. Many edits could have been made in this movie to save time and get to the conclusion quicker, but they weren’t. It’s understandable how this movie flopped and that the sequel may take a while to come out if it ever does.
The acting was…decent. Taylor Kitsch was…Taylor Kitsch, I mean, I wasn’t expecting him to be Orson Welles or anything. Lynn Collins played Dejah extremely well. Willem Dafoe is always fun to watch, especially when he doesn’t play a human. Mark Strong as Matai Shang was also ok. And the rest of people were…ok.
The visuals are very believable actually. Then again, the director is Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame.
All in all, I like the movie and probably would see it again sometime; but I understand how many other people wouldn’t want to.
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score is 21/35 = 60% (D-) !