Film | Nathaniel Rogers | Taylor Kitsch

Now Playing: John Carter

Woola (a "Calot") & John (a "Virginian")  in  JOHN CARTER



 Let's begin with a man and his dog. First, the dog. Woola is an unsightly creature but oddly endearing. He's the size of a pony but he looks more like a lizard or a toad albeit one with six visible legs and hundreds of sharp teeth. He reads all dog though -- a mutant pug. His assignment and then devotion is to guard the human prisoner John Carter (Taylor Kitsch).

John Carter of Virginia has been magically transported to Barsoom (aka Mars)  and the green martians who discover him don't know what to make of him though they love his mad jumping skill. Mars' gravity makes John Carter the Earthling a superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. When John Carter tries to escape his prison early in the film, he finds it impossible to elude Woola whose multiple legs carry him across the Martian desert in super sonic zig-zag fashion, clouds of dust trailing behind him like a Road Runner cartoon. The adorable mutant pug always appears wherever bouncy John Carter is about to land. Neither man nor beast are moving in a circular fashion but they're not getting anywhere. Eventually they'll be right back where they started.

Points of origin are important. Home, and our journeys to and from it, are at the heart of John Carter's multi-limbed adventure. The four armed green martians who discover John Carter led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) are nomadic and their cities are dying. They do their best to avoid contact with the civil war raging around them on Mars. The moving city of Zodonga is home to the evil Sab Than (Dominic West) who aims to rule the entire red planet. Meanwhile the Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of the beautiful citystate of Helium discovers that her father has arranged for her to marry Sab Than to end the war.

Into this triply divided dying planet lands one John Carter who has been transported from his home to this new one by a magical amulet. We're constantly reminded that John Carter is of Virginia -- the martians even mistake it for his name -- and he wants to go back there. But when he meets the princess he starts feeling a new kind of gravitational pull.

Would it help you to stay focused to know that in Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mars" novels interplanetary travel robs John Carter of all of his clothing?



In the first book in the series "A Princess of Mars" John Carter leaves earth clothed but arrives on Mars completely starkers. Burroughs makes a big point of reminding you of just that. The Martian Princess is also naked and describes earth clothing as grotesque. Sadly for fans of Friday Night Light's prime slab of beefcake this particular John Carter arrives on Mars with his "grotesque coverings" intact. The film's modesty isn't surprising since gargantuan budgets require a certain kind of MPAA rating and this also happens to be the first live action feature from Pixar legend Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL•E).

You can see the Pixar influence in the confidence of the animation (50% of the characters are CGI) and even, if you're looking hard enough, in the broad strokes of the emotional beats and the storyboarded feel of the setpieces. It turns out that those feel more organic in animated features.


If the plot eludes you, know that you won't be alone. If any movie ever needed a Star Wars style scroll before it began, this is the one. No such scroll appears and there's surprisingly little exposition given that we've been tossed into an entirely alien realm. Or maybe the exposition is just too silly to absorb and it's easy to block out, like the princess theorizing about "the ninth ray" or the confessed destructive strategies of another group of aliens called... oh, never mind. Just sit back, giggle, and enjoy the elaborate visuals. They have the kind of clarity that so often escapes blockbuster cinema which tends to get awfully muddy shoving abundant stuff into ever inch of the frame. Sometimes all you need is a simple image that pops. And thankfully Stanton finds a few here of the comic, action and dramatic varieties.

Whether he finds enough of them for a two hour plus movie is another matter.

Johncarter-windblownIn a recent interview Stanton unfortunately compared the movie to a TV show.

"It’s really like we’ve made the pilot to a season we’re hoping to get."

And that right there is the problem. By the time the movie is finished laying down the groundwork and introducing the characters, it's time to wrap up, giving the movie an odd rhythm which truncates the emotional arcs while overstaying the plot's welcome. The whole experience gives off the faint sensation of those times when you've watched too many episodes of a TV series back to back and cursed yourself for not saving some for later.

I saw people leaving the theater during the drawn out ending just as I myself was losing interest. A late film plot hiccup filled me with momentary dread "There's more?!?" only to thoroughly revive my interest. It helped that the movie seemed suddenly playful about its convoluted plot and suddenly aware of its interplanetary absurdity with a great flash cut timed to an incantation of "Barsoom". But why did it take so long to arrive at that self-aware place?

Woola and John Carter's hyper jumpy erratic zig-zag chase turns out to be a rather perfect microcosm of John Carter the movie. It never sits still as it leaps from planet to planet, from city to city from setpiece to setpiece. But for all its movement it has trouble getting anywhere whether it's airborne or landlocked, laying down Plot Point A or Z (so. much. plot) or roaming Earth or Mars… excuse me Barsoom.



Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

Feed This post's comment feed


  1. What I found most distracting is while Taylor Kitsch is both fetching -- and capable of delivering immensely silly dialogue with a straight face -- his skin tone is pasty white. As the entire film is set in blazing interplanetary sunlight this is quite odd. But it's all due to the fact that in reality he's indoors in front of a green screen with everything around him CGId.

    Lynn Collins' Martian Priness is almost as pretty but her line readings are far too realistic to ring true. What a film like this needs is Maria Montez and alas neither she, nor her daughter Tina Aumont are available any longer.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 9, 2012 6:30:30 PM

  2. nice abs. i'm sold. *facepalm* :p

    Posted by: DanSwon | Mar 9, 2012 6:41:34 PM

  3. Um, you don't tan immediately upon entering the sun. If he was pasty white on Earth, he'll be just as pale on Mars.

    Posted by: Rrhain | Mar 9, 2012 6:42:34 PM

  4. Heheh, and sunny or not on Mars, it's farther from the sun, so less of those pesky Ultraviolet B rays that are so bad for you, but give you that awesome tan.

    I haven't seen it yet, but really? He's not properly tan is the complaint in a movie this obviously silly? Ok, lemme go check it out myself. It looks popcorny fun ... and one thing I like about it already is that, in reading reviews, it seems you either love it love or or hate it hate it. I'm fascinated by movies like that.

    Posted by: Zlick | Mar 9, 2012 7:06:11 PM

  5. I can't believe you even wasted your time seeing this! Oh wait, half naked man with a nice body. I guess it's gay news worthy! *ducks*

    Posted by: zeddy | Mar 9, 2012 7:37:42 PM

  6. No tan makes sense, but no facial hair? He doesn't seem to grow any on Mars, is that because of some intergalactic thing? I mean, he can suddenly leap over entire armies, maybe Mars makes him unable to grow facial hair, too?

    Terrible movie I thought.

    Posted by: Glenn | Mar 9, 2012 8:45:59 PM

  7. Where's the video?

    Posted by: FunMe | Mar 9, 2012 8:46:09 PM

  8. much are you being paid to continually post about this?

    Posted by: Gary | Mar 9, 2012 9:32:04 PM

  9. Th source material is 1920's pulp. I have Amazing Stories Annual #1, 1927, edited by Hugo Gernsback, with cover fiction by Burroughs 'Mastermind of Mars'. This is the way it was written. Ogle John or Deja Thoris depending on your preference and enjoy a plotless romp. That's how the source material was.

    Posted by: Chris | Mar 10, 2012 1:34:08 AM

  10. This movie is absolutely bombing. Its budget went massively out of control, estimated to be rivaling Avatar at $350M total including marketing. Its tracking at less than $35M for the weekend and will likely end up under $100M gross. Even the foreign markets wont save it.

    Posted by: Rovex | Mar 10, 2012 2:36:44 AM

  11. Hubby and I saw it last night and both really enjoyed it!

    Guys above who are wondering why this is gay, there are a LOT of gay geeks.... many in the cinema last night too.

    We love Flash Gordeon and Stargate and this movie, like Star Wars or Raiders, is a totally unapologetic ode to the great Space Operas and serials of the early 20th Century.

    @DAVID EHRENSTEIN: the pasty skin tone is deliberate art direction choice, as the alien humans are supposed to have red-orange skin, so he needs to be distinct from them. They keep calling him "white worm"...

    But what I most appreciate is that this film will do what FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS did for young boys of my generation -- help them figure out their sexual orientation a whole lot faster!

    Sci-Fi + man in loincloth for whole movie always = WIN.

    Posted by: Strepsi | Mar 10, 2012 8:58:30 AM

  12. I'm not asking for a Snooki-style spray tan. Just a LITTLE color.

    And if Taylor Kitsch helps some pre-adolescents out there into the Wonderful World of Gaynesss, so much the better.

    It's really not that bad a movie. Just don't expect a lot and you may well enjoy it.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 10, 2012 10:16:53 AM

  13. well we enjoyed it, but 2 hours is just too long. I really love that martian dog.. ;-)

    Posted by: Joe | Mar 10, 2012 12:19:08 PM

  14. I really enjoyed this movie and not just for the extremely hot John Carter.
    I can't believe some here are being petty about his skin color! Who cares if he doesn't have a tan, good lord people. He's a pretty good actor and he's hot. Just relax and enjoy the view!

    Posted by: Matt | Mar 10, 2012 1:31:32 PM

  15. If it means anything, Burroughs's "Princess of Mars," which this movie is adapted from, is not a particularly good book. Even for science fiction it's pretty weak. It's an important novel in the history of Mars literature, but not because of it's quality. Just it's historic novelty.

    Posted by: MateoM | Mar 10, 2012 2:00:00 PM

  16. If they did this for $50-80 million... it would have looked like a genius decision to make the film. As it is, it will probably kill any chance of seeing another movie like it... as Hollywood studios are normally scared of making movies with aliens and the like, especially Pulp style. I don't blame them -- it's hard to sell a big blockbuster like this, but with the right budget, they can make sense.

    That... or have the name Cameron or Lucas attached to it.

    Posted by: Ryan | Mar 10, 2012 3:53:30 PM

  17. I grew up reading the John Carter and Tarzan series during the 70s. They struck me as dripping with hot, male flesh. The previews for the movie look pretty much as I imagined John Carter of Virginia would look. I'm sold!

    Posted by: JT | Mar 10, 2012 4:36:42 PM

  18. Funny when people have strong opinions about a film they clearly haven't watched.

    - For one, the movie was filmed primarily in Utah to use the naturally occurring rock formations as a backdrop for Mars. So, not on a green screen set.

    - Second, the Tharks shaved off all of John Carter's facial hair after he was captured and thrown into the place with all the hatchlings. That's why he looks clean shaven after that scene.

    Posted by: MykeTV | Mar 10, 2012 9:49:20 PM

  19. I saw it today and enjoyed - yes they spent a fortune and every cent is on the screen. Kitsch looks great (even if he needs a tan) and that adorable dog creature stole the movie-yes the plot is old fashion it was written in 1917 and by now everyone from Flash Gordon to Avatar has been "inspired" by Burroughs.

    Posted by: jaragon | Mar 10, 2012 11:22:44 PM

  20. Just got back from seeing the movie. It was indeed a good popcorn film. I enjoyed the feel of early 1900's sense of sci-fi. You pay your money for return of losing yourself in a film for a few hours - that is what I got.

    Posted by: Mary in Iowa | Mar 10, 2012 11:54:08 PM

  21. I thought the film was rather enjoyable.. Lighten up guys...

    Posted by: Allen Z | Mar 11, 2012 11:50:31 AM

  22. This is going to be a cult classic in the long run. The director and everyone on screen fully bought into the 1920s pulp vibe, and if you let yourself be absorbed, it was a truly enjoyable film. It isn't surprising that it's not doing as well as hoped at the box office - pulpy sci-fi has never been a big draw unless there's some big name like Lucas, Spielberg or Cameron attached. But I enjoyed it along with everyone I saw it with. I'm glad movies like this can still get made, despite the majority of dreck out there. It's not surprising that people don't know quality sci-fi when they see it anymore.

    Posted by: Dave | Mar 12, 2012 3:49:28 AM

  23. My bf and I both enjoyed it tremendously. Fun old-timey pulp Mars fic brought to the screen with skill and achieving a very good and consistent tone - very difficult to do with these kind of projects (judging by how many fail in this department) and for which I give very high marks.

    I think every penny of the production budget was on the screen, and the stuff on the screen looked great. In that area, Mr. Kitch looked pretty great, too. A tad short on charisma, but I think he served the film just fine.

    The action seems to take place over a brief period of time, so I'm not exactly sure how tan he would get - and those of us staring pretty intently at Mr. Kitch's really cute face likely noticed his beard scruff does indeed grow - though his upper lip fuzz lags behind. Details I was pleased to observe as I looked longingly at him for 2+ hours.

    2+ hours of well-paced fun. Anecdotally, the L.A. theater we saw it in was sold-out, but barely anyone besides the bf and me applauded at the end.

    Posted by: Zlick | Mar 12, 2012 9:41:25 AM

  24. I didn't care for it. Substitute Kitsch for Scott Porter or Zach Gilford and I probably would have enjoyed it more.

    Posted by: Rodney Wollam | Mar 12, 2012 10:44:05 AM

  25. John, I don't think rubbing that frog's tummy will make it rain. I'd give it a wide berth, if I were you.

    Haven't seen the movie yet. Probably will but John Carter was supposes to be older (according to the books). Sorry Taylor, but you're too young.

    Posted by: SFRowGuy | Mar 12, 2012 2:43:38 PM

  26. 1 2 »

Post a comment


« «Towleroad Guide to the Tube #1080« «