John Carter came out late in Japan, but I got a chance to watch it last night after a day of role-playing, and while I was impressed by the authenticity of its representation of Barsoom, I wasn’t so impressed by its general cinematic properties. It was a fun romp but it suffered from what seems to be a way too common problem in modern action/SF movies: too much plot. In this case the plot had been laid on thick because the movie had too many themes, but in its defense most of these themes were attempts to work all the essential points of the setting into a single movie. So we had white apes, treacherous Therns, Tharks, a bit of lost-princess plot from one of the later books, the river Is and the environmental problems of Mars all rolled into one movie. It probably would have been a much better idea to make the movie a relatively faithful representation of the first book, and then run on to making a series if the first one had been successful – it could be quite a good franchise if the first were a hit. Instead, the movie has the major components of three or four books compressed into the one plot, and it made the plot unnecessarily complicated and broke the flow of the story.

It also suffered from another common problem – silly plot devices that don’t work and just waste time, something that also happens in TV. For example, why did John Carter have to go attack Zodanga only to discover that the battle was around Helium, then suddenly have to rush back with all his Thark mates? That’s 2 minutes of a long movie that just aren’t necessary and add to the sense of silliness – it seems to have taken him just a few minutes to get from Zodanga to Helium, where previously it took a whole night, and somehow a whole horde of Tharks flew after him even though none of them had ever flown before, without crashing. This kind of stuff isn’t bothersome in isolation but as it adds up across the course of the movie it changes the tone from “I’m suspending disbelief here so I can enjoy the four armed men slaughtering each other” to “oh come on, this is getting ridiculous!” In movies like this, you need the story to pare back on unnecessary suspension of disbelief so that you can accept the existence of a 9th Wave Ray Gun without dispute.

The 9th Wave Ray Gun, as far as I can recall, wasn’t in the original books and was inserted entirely so that we could have Therns in this story rather than waiting for book 3. As a change of plot I’m fine with that, since we get Therns; but I guess the purests will disapprove on principle, and also it adds complexity. The plot of the original book was quite fine, thank you, and we could have happily had a simple adventure involving Deja Thoris (who, by the way, was a stunner!) and the Tharks and left it at that. Ray guns were really unnecessary.

Ray guns were especially unnecessary since this movie was already struggling against a significant design flaw, that is very hard to solve on the big screen: the world and all its races are fundamentally preposterous, and if you’re going to have to sit down to watch this stuff you need, once again, for all the unnecessary preposterosity to be stripped out. You have blind white apes, a dog like a slug that can run at the speed of sound, levitating skyships, great big 8 legged mounts, transportation to mars, and did I mention the four-armed blue-skinned freaks who hatch from eggs and live in a horde without families or education of any kind, and have tasks and are twice the height of a man? I suppose compared to all that ray guns are pretty bog-standard actually… in any case, the setting all the characters and most of the plot were preposterous, and I think that might explain why it was a bit of a flop at the box office. A shame, really, because it’s a pretty fun movie, overall, and if they stripped out the extraneous stuff it could have been a really really good adventure movie and a very good interpretation of the books.

I do think its interpretation of the books was quite good, and I think it also had some very well done adjustments to small points that make it palatable to a modern audience without changing the main thrust of the original. For example, John Carter’s civil war record is unchanged but his rejection of his military history enables the viewer to be sympathetic to the struggles of an ex-slave holder; his encounter with the Apaches is subtly reshaped so that, while they remain a threat and he has to flee from them, their “savageness” can be more easily interpreted as a matter of perspective rather than absolute natural fact … that is, they have their own motivations, which Carter tries but fails to appeal to, rather than just being inchoate savages who want to kill him. Deja Thoris retains her spice and sassiness, rather than being weakened for the movies, and although occasionally seems to need Carter’s help just a bit too much, avoids that common pitfall of modern action movies of being suddenly rendered useless halfway through. The savagery of the Tharks is retained, but all the stupid stuff where Carter teaches them how to do their own cultural stuff better is dropped, and we also get something resembling an explanation for his rapid comprehension of the language. His super-hero status is much less maddening in this movie than in the original, though it’s still hard to understand why everyone thinks he can save the planet just because he can jump high. Deja Thoris can build an experimental ray gun, but she obviously finds this kind of ability nowhere near as useful as Carter’s ability to leap buildings with a single bound, and appeals desperately for him to help her take on a guy whose super power is “destroys cities with a wave of his hand.” Maybe she’d read the novel, and understood that no harm will come to her hero…

This is a good rendition of the setting, with some fun action scenes and very attractive lead characters, and the plot is broadly comprehensible though it fails in the usual ways that modern action movies do. If you’re a fan of the novels and you haven’t seen this already, I recommend giving it a go. If you enjoy pulp science fantasy and want to watch a swashbuckling film from the genre, it’s a good way to spend two hours. But if you’re a serious connoisseur of SF action movies and won’t settle for B-grade silliness at any point, I’d say this is probably not worth your time.