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You’d think the long-awaited film adaptation of one of the classics of old-school science fiction would leave more of a mark on the public's pop culture psyche, but John Carter (adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wildly influential1912 novel A Princess of Mars) was in one ear and out the other, much like Avatar. I forgot about it completely until someone brought up in passing at a party, and I had actually made the effort to see it in theaters!
It is, as of this writing, the eighth-most expensive movie ever made, costing around $263 million dollars. For perspective, that’s less than Avengers: Endgame and more than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It also ranks as one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time, likely thanks to a scattered marketing campaign — not to mention the challenge of trying to make material that inspired decades of classic science fiction to seem fresh to modern audiences.
So what did John Carter manage to accomplish? Let’s telegraph across the stars right to Barsoom and find out.
1. I’m a sucker for logo gags, even a simple one like tinting the Disney production logo red.
2. “Zodanga: the predator city.” I knew it wasn’t going to be a moving city full of Predators but, for one moment, I dreamed.
3. I’m a simple fantasy nerd: I love hearing people with great voices say borderline-camp made-up names and the word “Goddess” with hard consonants. I could listen to Mark Strong read The Silmarillion.
4. ... Is that the boy from Spy Kids?
5. Oh wow, Guillermo Del Toro’s house looks amazing.
6. John’s palatial tomb only opens from the inside? BRB, adding this to my Pinterest board “what is dead may never die”.
7. The post-Civil War American “frontier,” which means Ravenous is happening very close by.
8. Just in case we missed the subtlety of zooming in on John’s wedding ring while he intones about what he’s lost, here’s a flashback to make sure we know he had a wife and a child and THEY ARE DEAD AND IT IS SAD.
9. John keeps calling what is OBVIOUSLY a sun symbol a “spider” and now I’m not sure if he’s ever seen a spider.
10. I’d just like to remind everyone that in the original novels, nobody wears clothes on Mars. Everyone is naked. Everyone is united in exposure!
11. You will believe a man can jump!
12. Okay, folks, brace yourself for the terrible makeup choices for the red Martians. In direct sunlight, we get believable Oompa-Loompa; in dimmer lighting, it legitimately looks like brownface. IT’S REAL BAD.
13. Dejah Thoris is one of the original sci-fi damsels in distress, so I do like updating her to be Regent of the Royal Helium Academy of Science.
14. Wait, that’s James Purefoy? I thought he was playing the villain Sab Than. Can I not tell James Purefoy and Dominic West apart? As a lesbian, am I going dude-blind as I get older? Is that a thing?
15. Honestly, the effects on the Tharks still hold up after seven years; I wonder if they’re easier to buy since the lighting is already so high contrast in the desert?
16. Just imagine Willem Dafoe recording all of this wild dialogue, shark teeth shining in the studio lights.
17. I really appreciate that, since the Tharks lay eggs, that Thark ladies just don’t have boobs. V. nice change of pace in alien design to have it reflect the fantasy biology and not other fantasies about biology, hey-ooo.
18. ... can other people see Mark Strong as he feeds Purefoy all this evil counsel? Or is he just talking to himself?
19. PRO-TIP: If you are making an adaptation of a piece of speculative fiction that you have to recommend with heavy caveats about its racial politics, you can just… not bring that stuff with you to the present. I promise you are creative and smart enough to make a story work without, say, having your characters spew a slur like “the red man” all over the place for flavor. You shouldn’t need a sensitivity reader to figure that one out, buddy, but if you do, pay them appropriately for their labor.
20. Okay, John calling Dejah Professor is cute. I like that.
21. John, how did you just only notice now that there are two moons? It’s been nighttime for a while!
22. ... shouldn’t John slowly dying of thirst be kind of… a concern?
23. Dominic West is making a MEAL of this part. “Prudence demands you take an escort,” says one of his cronies. “Oh yeah?” he sneers. “WELL PRUDENCE CAN EAT MY SAND-ENCRUSTED LEATHER SHORTS.” That’s not the line, BUT IT SHOULD BE.
24. Oh, so the way sidekick Sola finds out that her leader Tars Tarkas is also her dad is only when John is trying to convince her to ditch a pilgrimage to help him? NOT COOL, JOHN.
25. I wonder if Edgar Rice Burroughs ever dreamed of John refusing to cheat on his dead wife with a scientist warrior princess in the innards of a 3D printer.
26. Are John’s ankles made of adamantium? I know they’re dense, Professor Thoris said so, but they are taking some heavy damage with those jumps.
27. I’d say we didn’t need a very long action scene where John massacres untold amounts of Tharks via jumping and swords, but what we really didn’t need were the flashback shots of John discovering and then burying (sans coffins!) the bodies of his wife and child interspersed throughout the carnage. I know this is meant to be John relieving his guilt, BUT I DO NOT FEEL RELIEVED.
28. John has been captured, washed, and sent to someone’s quarters unless this is the nicest prison cell on Mars.
29. “Zodanga: where the men are as limited as the menu and the women are as hard as the beds.” I choose to believe James Purefoy’s character rolling back into this film with that line means he’s a bi legend.
30. So the Therns are helping Mars burn itself down sociopolitically as part of their galactic-level game of Dungeons and Dragons as the universe’s worst Dungeon Masters.
31. Mmm, you can really taste the compositing in this flying sequence.
32. The power of Willem Dafoe is that you can really taste the “I GAVE YOU ONE EFFING JOB JOHN” in the back of your sinuses in this scene.
33. Okay, so the “good” Tharks are the ones who reject their traditional communal family structure for a traditional Earth family structure okay, mmhmm, MMHMMM
34. The arena sequence is GROTESQUE. People have their heads cut off! A woman gets RIPPED IN HALF! John cuts through and then PUNCHES HIS WAY THROUGH THE GIANT CORPSE OF A WHITE APE. Just because the blood is tampon commercial blue doesn’t mean it’s not blood, people!!!
35. How many monologues by a white dude new to town does it take to convince the locals to ride to the aid of their historical oppressors? Just one, apparently!
36. Whose bright idea was it to make the load-bearing pillar for the fancy platform THE HOLY FONT?
37. Did Sab Than have rocket boots THIS ENTIRE TIME? My God, what self-control, I'd be zipping around in those things 24/7.
38. You know what, yelling “I’m getting away!” at your escaping doppelganger is a solid joke.
39. Fellas, is proposing to your new bride with your old wedding ring disrespectful to your DEAD WIFE?
40. Also: y’all have known each other for a week, calm down.
41. Oh my god, Bryan Cranston’s skeleton is picked clean: Ravenous really did happen not too far from here!!!
42. Wait, so if Edgar Rice Burroughs was just writing about his uncle’s adventures on Mars and we just saw that everyone was clothed… does that mean Edgar made the executive decision to make everybody naked?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.