One hundred years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs created his peculiar brand of science fantasy by the publication of Princess of Mars. Transforming his Edwardian-era tale into an action movie suitable for a modern audience is a challenge. Burroughs’s style and pacing belongs to the pre-modernist era. His many Mars/Barsoom stories instead gain their power through their drama and colorful visions of an alien world. This movie takes more liberties with the John Carter stories than Peter Jackson did with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But this is a well-crafted Barsoom for our times.
What strikes me is the beauty of that far-away world: the arid plains and hills, the insectoid airships, the vertical rock city of Helium and the mobile monstrous machine that is the city of Zodanga. Disney has spent a fortune on this movie and spent it well: the esthetic execution is flawless. The Martian technology is appropriately designed right into the small details. The computer-animated tharks are believable — they never look CGI.
The protagonists are what you would expect from an old-fashioned yarn like this, with one exception: princess Dejah Thoris is a renowned scholar and a skilled sword-fighter, capable of putting down a horde of attacking soldiers. In short: she rocks. It was also a pleasure to see some British quality actors add their gravitas to plot, e.g. Ciarán Hinds as the jeddak (king) of Helium.
The twists and turns surrounding the scheming therns is clever. Burroughs never explained the backstory why people travel between the planets by teleportation, but the film does — in a way that I approve of. That also opens the door (pun intended) for the developments of the final ten-fifteen minutes of the movie.
I don’t want to put any spoilers into this review, because a lot of my enjoyment of John Carter was based on not knowing what was about to happen. Several things are left unexplained, but that is no problem because they are as mysterious to Dejah and John as they are to us. The therns must be having a lot of nasty tech hidden “up their sleeves” (unlike all other Barsoomians, the therns hide their bodies completely under long robes).
In Sweden movies are traditionally rated on a five-point scale. I give the John Carter movie 4 red planets out of 5. A beautiful world, a cool heroine, full-speed action. I got exactly what I expected. (And John Carter is notably more enjoyable than the regrettable Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars saga)
Disney gambled on making a cool adventure movie. To me, they succeeded. But I am an enthusiast of the right kind and the John Carter movie is made for people like me. And there aren’t enough of us in the world to ensure a financial success for the producer. So despite the “sequel to come” ending, I do not expect any John Carter II to be made. What a pity.
I bought the John Carter DVD recently and discovered that this is one of those movies that do not transfer well to the small screen. Its visual beauty requires a full-scale cinema screen — a 32″ TV does not reproduce the esthetics sufficiently well.
I see this as an example of two things that movie-makers often do when converting book-to-screen:
1) they decided that the original story is not good enough, and
2) they didn’t put that book down and go find something they thought WAS good enough.
I know that a book is not a movie and a movie is not a book. Some changes have to be made. And I know it isn’t 1912 anymore. But why were the Therns changed from false gods (the whole point of the Therns) to basically real gods, thus missing the whole point? Why was John Carter himself changed from a swashbuckling honor-bound hero to a mopy anti-hero?
Sure, moving Zodanga and the missing Heliumatic jed and plenty of other stuff was changed, but they changed the hero and they changed the villain, at which point what does the rest matter?
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