I finally saw John Carter. It was better than I expected. It had many flaws, but it did a far better job of capturing the look and feel of the Barsoomian landscape and civilisation than the trailers indicated; and it was good enough that its relatively poor performance at the box office (and consequently, poor chance of a sequel) is saddening.
Incidentally, what a lousy job of marketing was done for this movie! In an era when special-effects action extravaganzas are flooding the market, this movie needed a hook to differentiate it from all the rest. And there were a couple of obvious differentiating hooks: that this is from the original creator of Tarzan, and that this is from the book that inspired everything from Superman to Star Wars and Avatar. Instead, the trailers presented a generic-looking film (with a generic title), and focused on the one scene that would seem to most viewers to be copied from Attack of the Clones (even though it was really the other way around). I wish the previews had shown more of this imagery:
Some changes I mostly liked:
- The updating of Dejah Thoris, and the jettisoning of the books dreadful courtship arc, were a relief. (And Lynn Collins did a far better job portraying her than Id expected from the previews.)
- Making John Carters character and backstory more complex worked well, on the whole; and the early scenes of his recalcitrance were fun. (But no Burroughsian hero would have broken the clear conditions of truce the way Carter does in his first meeting with Tars Tarkas.)
- Explaining the means of Carters transport to Barsoom, rather than leaving it a mystery as Burroughs does (he seems on the verge of addressing it in, of all places, Back to the Stone Age and Escape on Venus with the Gorbuses and Loto respectively but never quite gets there), is a narrative improvement, even if the way its done is problematic.
- Introducing Burroughs himself as a character was a nice idea (the book does this too, but to a lesser extent); alas, the kid never seemed like Burroughs to me, plus if hes about 20 as he looks then he should be a soldier in Arizona but I realise most viewers havent had as heavy a dose of Burroughs biography as I have.
- The (probable) reference to Machete (tharks dont fly) and (possible) reference to Curse of Fatal Death (Ill explain later) were funny.
Some changes I mostly disliked:
- The decision to open on Mars and move to Carter and Earth later was just bizarre; Carter is our viewpoint character, and we should discover Barsoom as he does.
- The improvement of explaining the means of interplanetary transportation is completely cancelled by the utterly mysterious way that Carter learns the Voice of Barsoom.
- The Warhoon are presented as physically different from the tharks more bestial when in the books theyre just another tribe of tharks.
- Why no canals? Not only are they in the books, but theyre a crucial part of the turn-of-the-century conception of Mars, which is what Barsoom is supposed to be.
- And why no atmosphere plants? Its mentioned that Barsoom is a dying world, and the plants in addition to being a crucial part of the original plot are also an important part of the explanation of why its only dying rather than dead. (Were they afraid the audience would think they were ripping off Total Recall?)
- The linguistic fidelity of the Tolkien films is not matched here; Burroughs tells us where Carters thark name Dotar Sojat comes from, and it definitely doesnt mean my right arms. (That said, we do hear more of Burroughs Martian words than I expected, including some of those that Lucas adapted for Star Wars, such as jeddak and padwar, that Id feared the film might drop to avoid uninformed comparison.)
- I agree with Matthew Alexander that Carters strength seems inconsistent, with the boulder-swinging in the arena, in particular, going beyond anything else weve seen him able to do. (I also agree that the films pace is too rushed. Id prefer the pace of Lawrence of Arabia.)
- Its 2012; could they really find no convincing way, either via makeup or via CGI, to make the humanoid Martians genuinely red-skinned?
- The wrecking of the concept of the Therns was a mistake, for reasons Ive explained before. (Given the Therns, though, the twist at the end was a nice idea.)