Quite underrated. I didn’t expect high art, but I got the fun, action movie I was expecting. Better than fair and less than good, but certainly watchable. And John Carter is a visual delight at times.
The most memorable performance in the film is not, strictly speaking, a performance at all. It‘s Woola, a six-legged Martian “dog”, or a dog in a newt suit.
I first discovered John Carter of Mars at a Swedish SF congress in Stockholm 1975 and bought the paperback from Donald AWollheim himself.
I’m glad I did. I couldn’t put the book down. Burroughs is a master storyteller and the original novel was written 144 years ago. It’s amazing that the quality of writing can still entertain more a century and a half after. In order to really understand the movie, you have to have to read the three first books of the series, as they are one story, like LOTR. Project Gutenberg, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1868)
It’s a fine line between taking this story too seriously or not seriously enough, and the movie walks it fairly well. The original conceptual art was, indeed, done by Frank Frazetta, which is seriously awesome. Woola, a bunch of steampunk airships, and a gladiator sequence with a white-furred, fanged giant ape is enough for me to make this a great pop corn flick.
The Dejah Thoris Princess of Mars has been upgraded to a smart and battle-ready tattooed regent of the Royal Helium Academy of Science. She proves to be more than a passive beauty. Dejah Thoris was the really interesting human character, visually and otherwise. And the movie really should have kept Burroughs’ title Princess of Mars. She’s a way more engaging character than John Carter, at least his movie version.
The movie also has a liberal anti-war and pro-environment sentiment to give the silliness some weight. In the book John Carter angrily tries to keep his Civil War past behind him, refusing to help Colonel Powell fight the Apaches: “We're nothing but a warring species and I want no part of it.”
It flopped at the theatres. The movie had a gargantuan budget of $250,000,000. Where did all the money go? It certainly wasn’t spent on the screenplay. I’ve seen films that have done far more with a fraction of that sum. You can read an interesting analysis of what went wrong with the film here and here.
In summary: John Cater was marketed horribly, which is a shame since it is a pretty decent flick.
I saw the movie in 2D. I can live without 3D.
There is also a “Princess of Mars” B-movie from 2009 with Tracy Lords as Dejah Thoris. Not the worst flick you ever saw, but forgettable.