Two Cents Travels to the Red World with JOHN CARTER

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

For a century, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars was the most influential film never made.

Princess helped invent the modern space-fantasy opera, and its massive popular success inspired generations of readers and artists. For years and years, a film adaptation was discussed and attempted. A feature-length animated version was in development in the 1930s which, if it had succeeded, could have beaten Snow White to the title of first-ever feature-length animated film. Ray Harryhausen tried to get his own version off the ground decades later, and an adaptation was kicked around again in the ’80s, in the wake of Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian.

While the decades passed, other filmmakers looted Burroughs’ works for ideas and inspiration, not the least of these being James Cameron, who remixed the tales of John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and the noble-savage Tharks to blockbuster effect with Avatar.

The result of all this pilfering was that when Pixar luminary Andrew Stanton finally got an actual adaptation off the ground, many a film fan thought John Carter (so named because market researchers didn’t think boys would go see a movie with ‘Princess’ in the title, and apparently ‘Mars’ tests really negative too) was ripping off the sci-fi/fantasy films that were in fact themselves the rip offs.

Funny that.

The film follows despondent Civil War solider John Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch) who is accidentally transported across space to the planet Mars (known as ‘Barsoom’ to the locals). There, the Earthman discovers himself capable of great feats of strength and power (he can leap tall buildings in a single… you get it), which quickly embroils him in the conflict between various warring tribes, and the endangered princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) at the center of the brewing war.

John Carter received only middling reviews and was a massive flop, at some points being classified as the biggest financial failure of all time (the actual numbers are debatable). Stanton went back to Pixar, made back a quick billion with Finding Dory and has since stuck to directing TV. Kitsch’s other movie star bids flopped (Battleship, released the same year, was arguably a bigger miss than John Carter) and he has since settled in as a character actor in supporting roles or leads in smaller projects. Collins still works, but this was the end of her own bid for leading lady status.

It’s quite a fall for what was long considered the holy grail of potential franchises. But almost immediately John Carter attracted vocal supporters who adored the film’s classical approach, its unapologetic weirdness, and its high-flying pulp adventure.

So this week, we’re heading back to Barsoom to see what there is to see.

Next Week’s Pick

Earlier this month a small but important bit of film history came to light as the Asian Film Archive uploaded their restoration of a 1973 Singaporean kung fu film which was banned upon release and sat unwatched for 30 years. Ring of Fury was unrestricted in 2005 and restored in 2017; the film’s Youtube debut is for all intents and purposes its introduction to the world.

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Austin Wilden:

Occasionally there will be a movie I get excited for reading about its development or watching the trailers, but then a middling or negative general consensus will keep me from going to see it upon release. John Carter falls squarely in that category. The idea of seeing a foundational text of modern fantasy and science fiction translated to the big screen as the live action filmmaking debut of one of Pixar’s best talents, Andrew Stanton, it seemed like a movie with a lot of promise. When it was released, general audiences ignored it and the people that did see it didn’t seem to have the greatest praise or condemnation for it.

Having watched it for this column, I regret letting that middling critical reception leading me to ignore John Carter because I had a blast with this. What caught me off-guard watching it for the first time; the levels of unabashed pulp sci-fi storytelling. Nothing about the bizarre visuals of Mars, aka Barsoom, feel downplayed; with ships sailing on light, a city that crawls like a centipede, and everything about the Tharks. It’s easy to imagine a less committed adaptation going to greater lengths to chase some misguided sense of realism, but John Carter aims for looking like a living Frank Frazetta cover. Even the title character’s arc seems to track along how much he embraces the pulpiness of the situation he’s in with him wearing the fur of the giant white ape he slays in the arena to go into battle at the end.

Embracing the pulp nature of its source material helps John Carter be at its best, which begins from the moment he ends up on Mars after the clumsy nested series of prologues that make up the movie’s first fifteen minutes. It’s a feat that deserves to be remembered not for how it bombed at the box office, but for its spectacular action, production design, Dejah Thoris, and especially Woola. (@WC_Wit)

Trey Lawson:

Love it or hate it, frankly it’s a miracle that John Carter exists at all. A feature film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars had been in and out of development since 1931 when the aforementioned author partnered with Bob Clampett to plan an animated version for MGM. Since then, those original stories have been plundered for spare parts by so many other space operas that a faithful adaptation ran the risk of appearing to imitate the very stories it inspired. And yet, in spite of all that, John Carter is surprisingly good AND surprisingly faithful (in spirit, if not in plot). Admittedly there are some moments in the middle that drag a bit, but overall it plays well as an update of the traditional swashbuckling adventure formula. Add to that solid special effects and an incredible supporting cast, and you get one of the best non-Star Wars space operas of the last 20 years. It was easy to dismiss this one back when it came out, especially with the awful ad campaign Disney used, but trust me — John Carter deserves a second look.(@T_Lawson)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

Bless this three-and-a-half-star movie’s little heart, it gets so much right.

Adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books to the big screen was never going to be an easy task (probably why it took 70+ years), and not just because Burroughs’ work was preeeeeetty racist (although, HOO BOY). But even with the inherent challenges of streamlining a wild pulp narrative which has been a foundational influence for everything from superheroes to James Cameron’s Avatar without making audiences feel like they’ve already seen all this before, it’s still frustrating to see what feel like obvious missteps that keep John Carter(of Mars) from being truly achieving its potential.

But even with needlessly playing coy about John’s past and Kitsch not bringing quite the right tone for every setting (he works almost immediately once we get to Mars, it’s fine), director Andrew Stanton brings passion and a sense of discovery to match the action/adventure chops required for this to work.

And it does! Granted, I’d prefer a bit more of the pulp weirdness had been included, and Mars isn’t red enough, but at a certain point, you’re splitting hairs. The set pieces are clearly-shot and exciting as well as carrying emotional weight (the John and Woola vs. The Warhoon Horde being *the* standout), the environmental messaging hammers home even more strongly today, and Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah is a unique and exceptional sci-fi heroine. It really deserved a sequel, but huge props to everyone involved for committing to telling a complete (and fairly epic) story rather than just the beginning of one, like so many modern would-be blockbusters.

Now, for Marian’s Corner:

“I love John Carter, he’s the best character.”

She kept asking where the princess was until Dejah showed up, then was all in. Other than her, Marian’s favorite part was the monster dog who runs like Dash Parr. So, they did something right. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Brendan Foley:

When the movie is working, and it often is, John Carter truly does feel like the next great epic in fantasy cinema, ably fusing the post-Lord of the Rings aesthetic of weight and grit with the high-flying bare-chested rip-roaring spirit of giddy pulp that Burroughs, if he didn’t necessarily invent, certainly just about perfected.

But it doesn’t have a pulse. And while it’s tempting to shrug and say, ‘Well it doesn’t get good until he gets to Mars, but then it picks up,’ even when John is running and leaping about on the red planet (which coulda been redder, if we’re being honest) the movie still is only sporadically able to get a good head of steam going. Everything is just that half-second too slow, the dialogue just a bit too ponderous, the plotting just a touch too convoluted. None of these are dealbreakers, but they keep the film stuck at ‘Good’ when ‘GREAT’ is visible yet always just out of reach.

In a fair world, the movie would’ve still performed OK and Stanton would’ve been afforded the chance to refine his approach and I’m willing to be his sequels would have been something for the ages in the same way that Batman Begins now looks like Nolan operating with training wheels before really letting loose with his subsequent epics. Alas, this seems likely to be our only trip to Barsoom. Still and all, it’s an enjoyable enough ride. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I’m one of the relative few who watched this theatrically and was disappointed to see it tank. While The Mouse doesn’t need — and ill deserves — our sympathy, it’s a bummer for the filmmakers and everyone who helped craft a dazzling and sprawling Martian-set fantasy epic that they didn’t get a chance to continue the story, especially considering the expansive source material, a series which spanned 11 novels and multiple character generations, and was published over three decades. Seems unfair in that light that the movie adaptation of this vision should fail on its first at-bat because some idiots in marketing thought “John Carter”, the blandest and least descriptive title imaginable, would somehow fill seats at the megaplex. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

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