Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “John Carter”

Dear Frank,

john-carter-poster-red-marsAbout a year or so ago, you may recall, I told you about the John Carter of Mars trailer, because (like many things I tell you about here) I thought it was pretty stupid. But for some reason I was cautiously optimistic about the film itself, based entirely on the fact that writer/director Andrew Stanton had made some pretty good movies already, and he seemed likely to keep a good thing going — especially because he was such a passionate fanboy about the source material.

Then, of course, the movie actually came out, and the reaction was literally mixed — to the point where I couldn’t really get excited. It has taken me WEEKS, Frank, to get through this movie and figure out what the hell it was about, and I wish I could tell you why that was the case. It just boggled me, you know? Boggled.

First realization, as I sit down to watch: It feels like it’s been a long long time since I’ve seen a movie with only one company in the pre-title sequence. Like, everything has like at least two production companies behind it these days — five, if you’re from Europe. But Disney’s the only company behind this movie. Which explains why they took such a bath on it.

John Carter opens with Mars ships fighting each other and then some human-looking folk offering weapons to another guy. I dig the part where Mark Strong and Dominic West are in a scene together! That is cool! There are tons of actors in this movie who are genuinely cool dudes. I feel kinda bad for them.



After this Mars interlude, we end up on Earth, where the nephew of John Carter, Edgar “Ned” Burroughs, is finding out that his uncle John Carter had megabucks and is also dead and has left said megabucks to “Ned.”

This whole Edgar Burroughs thing is meant to imply that the original stories this movie was based on were “written” (as opposed to actually-made-up-and-written-by) by Edgar Rice Burroughs — because then “Ned” (we’ll get to that) opens up his uncle John’s journal and FRAMING DEVICE ALERT!!!

Welcome to Arizona, where John Carter — your friend and mine, Taylor “Riggins” Kitsch is hassling saloon dudes for supplies and ends up getting arrested by Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston!

I like Bryan Cranston. Even if he’s pretty much unrecognizable under a mustache and blonde wig.

John Carter escapes from prison by peeing outside his cell, because he really wants to get his gold, because he’s got a dead wife and so now all he cares about is money. Sure. Okay.

There’s a kinda fun montage of John Carter’s continued escape attempts, which includes backstory on how John Carter was a good soldier in the Civil War but is not a soldier anymore. What matters is the latter — John Carter don’t care about nothing! Also, John Carter is so good at the escaping thing that he manages to escape, once again, with Cranston’s horse!

Cranston gives chase, but then the two of them are waylaid by Injuns (we’re in such an old-timey retro place with this movie, calling them Native Americans is accurate) and John Carter protects Cranston despite the whole imprisonment thing. John Carter is the goddamn protagonist DON’T YOU FORGET IT.

But then, in the Arizona mountains, John Carter comes across a Martian, who he then fights, and then the Martian’s magic amulet zaps John Carter to Mars. Sorry, “Barsoon.”

Given what a big deal this should be, it’s weird, how it just kinda happens. And so far, just for the record, Mars does not look much different from old-timey Arizona, except they changed the tint on the camera filters.

We know it’s a different planet, though, because John Carter has to adjust to new gravity, which will eventually give him magic jumping powers, but right now it just makes him fall down a lot. Falling on his face, pee-based jailbreaks, lots of whining about his dead wife — this is not really a star-making turn for Riggins so far.

At minute 23, by the way, we finally see some Martian-looking Martians. I have been told that I will need charts and graphs to keep track of all the kinds of Martians I will meet in this movie. I don’t know if I actually care that much, though.

Totally not at all the Arizona desert with the Barsoom Instagram filter.

Totally not at all the Arizona desert with the Barsoom Instagram filter.

We meet the princess of Mars now, by the way (AKA the source material’s titular heroine). She seems nice. And really into science and saving her people! A proper Leia-type princess, then. I approve.

Now, John Carter has been captured by the really Martian-y Martians, shaved and bathed, and chained up alongside a bunch of Martian puppies? The puppies are cute, but I’m thinking this is going to a ritual sacrifice place, which no es bueno.

This is one of those times where I don’t even really have to write jokes, Frank. I just tell you what’s happening on screen and the work is done for me.

This big cute dog shows up! “Nice big monster dog,” John Carter says. But this monster dog is clearly rad, and when some of the Martian humans start picking on the Martian dog, John Carter defends it, and ends up picking a big fight? The Martian dog’s name is Woola. He’s A+.

Way to go, Woola!

Way to go, Woola!

Up until now, all the Martians have been speaking incomprehensible Martian, but then all of a sudden John Carter can understand what the Martians are saying! Because this one Martian lady helped him out? She gets punished for it. Like, with brands to the skin! Martian culture is fucked up, yo.

And then there’s a big fight between the really Martian-y folk and the more human-y Martians, which leads to the Princess getting captured, but then she, John Carter and the daughter of the Martian-y Martian chief escape… to… cross the desert? Oh, they’re trying to figure out a way for John Carter to get home. Sure. Cool.

Exactly an hour in, I’m finally charmed by something Riggins does! That something is bantering with the princess. Love you, Riggins. Let’s see a bit more of that Riggins spirit, shall we?

They find whatever it was that they were looking for to get John Carter home, but I guess the really Martian-y Martians were hunting them, and there’s a big fight scene, which is intercut with John Carter flashing back to burying his dead wife and daughter, which makes it the SADDEST FIGHT SCENE EVER. And then they get caught, which means that the Princess has to marry McNulty to keep the peace, which is sad news, and also John Carter gets locked up. Again, sad.

James Purefoy just showed up! And his entrance made me laugh out loud. So that’s something. He helps John Carter escape, but then John Carter has an exposition scene with Mark Strong (well, it’s Mark Strong’s character, but Mark Strong is a shapeshifter so sometimes he’s actually an old lady or whatever).

Apparently Mark Strong’s particular brand of Martian is the immortal kind that likes to fuck around with other planets, including Earth? Sure.

As soon as we’re done with that exposition, though, Woola the awesome space dog comes and knocks out Mark Strong, allowing John Carter to escape on a landspeeder Martian space glider thing. Hooray!

But John Carter? WORST SPACE GLIDER THING DRIVER EVER. He crashes it with Woola and one of his Martian-y Martian friends on board, and the Martian-y Martian clan captures him, because the Martian-y Martians are now ruled by a dick.

But then John Carter totally dominates in another arena fight for the Martian-y Martians, takes command of the Martian-y Martians and rallies them to go rescue the princess! They arrive just in time for John Carter to break up the wedding, and he remains very good at using his jumping powers to catch the princess when she’s about to fall off something.

Aw, John Carter proposed to the princess! And they get married! That’s nice.

By the way, I really dig how Lynn Collins (who plays the princess) is 35 years old and looks it. Not, like, in a bad way. Just in a “this is what a 35-year-old woman looks like” kind of way. Mature, you know? She rocks the shit out of her terrible sci-fi bikinis, don’t get me wrong. It’s just… Yeah. Sometimes, women aren’t 23 years old. Sometimes they are 35. It happens to the best of us.

Rock it, gurl.

After the wedding, John Carter commits to this whole Mars thing by throwing away his fancy locket, but shapeshifter guy Mark Strong is like, whoops, TRICK! And then zaps John Carter back to Earth! What a dick!

And now we’re back to Earth and “Ned” the journal-reader, who recounts how John Carter spent years trying to get another fancy locket so that he could get back to Mars, and then Ned figures out that John Carter wasn’t actually dead! He was just pretending so that he could draw out another Martian shapeshifter guy and get another medallion. Sure.

Aw, nice moment between nephew and uncle. And then John Carter lays down on his funeral bed and gets whisked back to Mars to be with his lady and the title comes up: “John Carter of Mars”! With the logo and everything. Sure. Okay.

Immediately after finishing this movie, Frank, I literally HAD to leave my computer and go play Mass Effect. Why? I guess because I needed to enjoy some entertainment that had some sort of relevance in the 21st century (and also, because I am having a lot of fun replaying the game).

On a piece by piece basis, everything in John Carter is enjoyable enough. Taken as a whole, though, I found it disjointed, confusing and inaccessible. Here’s my theory, Frank: Passionate fanboys are great evangelizers for a property, but they can lack the critical distance to make material accessible to a new audience. John Carter distilled would have been a great deal of fun. But as someone who knew nothing about the original stories — there were too many trees, and not enough forest.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on December 18, 2012, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.


  2. Yeah but he kept like YANKING on CHAINS and stuff. My husband just kept looking at me and laughing. “Keep pulling, Tim, you can do it!” That is some serious Thor-level shirtlessness right there.

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