Test screening reviewer posts: “I saw John Carter at a Neilsen screening and I loved it” and sends movie discussion board into a frenzy

Test Screening Audience

A movie discussion board I monitor is buzzing at the moment because a few hours ago someone posted: “I just saw a test screening of John Carter. Loved it!”.  The readers of the board initially reacted with typical message board hostility, doubting it was a legit post — but the poster took questions and provided what amounted to a full review, and pretty soon it was apparent that she had indeed seen a test screening of John Carter, and indeed, she had loved it. She said she came on the board and posted about it precisely because she loved the film (the point being she would have kept mum if she hadn’t liked it out of deference to the fact that at this stage it’s still a work in progress), but because she had thoroughly enjoyed it she wanted to share. Over several hours denizens of the board posted questions to her, and she posted back.   She had never heard of the film or the book prior to going to the screening, which was Friday.  Afterwards she downloaded a copy of Princess of Mars and read it over the weekend.

This whole situation posed something of a dilemma in that people who go to test screenings are requested to keep mum about it — but the logic behind that is the “work-in-progress’ argument and the desire to not let negatives get loose into the universe when they are based on a work-in-progress screening.  I’ve thought pretty carefully and a) it’s already been published on the message board, which is a prominent one, and b) it can’t do any harm because she loved the movie and had coherent, interesting comments about it, and c) others are going to replay it too.

Now for what she said. (And I won’t include any SPOILERS.)

(These are excerpts of what the viewer wrote, taken verbatim from various posts that were written in response to specific questions from the board.)

I like to go to the movies for the sake of the art itself. I studied screenwriting for a few years and…have been a writing coach. I look for good stories with good characters. I look for lots of “show-don’t-tell” (this is a movie after all) I expect a movie to fit the basic criteria of good-storytelling and not rely on special effects, soundtracks and big name actors to see it though. If you have a good story, you have the potential to have a good film.

The ‘guys in charge” were focusing of the fact that the movie is marketed to kids between the ages of 10 – 15. Keep that in mind when you see it. My 14 year old son though it was great. He was throwing a fit at first when I dragged him to it but was really glad he went at the end. My husband was with me as well.

Movie was really excellent and well worth watching.The audience reacted positively to the entire thing. All around me were pleasantly surprised, as most, like me, hadn’t even heard of the film. Many people took a long time to fill out their surveys and felt a responsibility to accurately convey their opinions. I felt the audience was emotionally engaged. we were rooting for JC all the way. We wanted him to marry the princess. we wanted her to love him. I would definitely recommend it.

Characters and characterization
I really liked that characterizations. They were the best part. The non-humans were in the best actors in the show, as I will explain next. I felt that the writing was fine for an action movie. I’m not expecting oscar winning writing from this type of film. I felt it was a good adaptation of the book and the detail they added were fitting and were actually some of my favorite parts.

JC’c character was written well enough, but not excellently. We all know from beginning writing that character’s are supposed to change. The words he spoke suggested he changed, but the acting said he was bad-ass all the time, quite one-dimensional. He spent most of his time fighting, which I guess is true to the books.

Dejah Thoris
Dejah did pretty well, but they characterized her as the equal-to-man-in-battle type woman which has been trendy for quite some time now. They show her smart, sensitive side as well, but she was pretty much as “bad-ass” too. The woman that played her did a fine job IMO.

Woola the dog:
Awesome. Everyone loved Woola. He was my favorite character, actually. He had a cool “save-the-day” scene that was not in the book, which was one of my favorite parts. Everyone was talking about him. He’s hideously adorable.

Tars Tarkus
Great acting. Excellent portrayal of the character’s sensitivity and un-Tharklike kindness.

Very likable and a good job for a minor character

Number of Characters
Actually what I like was that there were a ton of characters, but somehow they were handled well. Too many characters can be a recipe for disaster in a movie, but this was well done

Indistinguishable from one another. My son said they had different jewels in their medallions, but it was hard for me to keep them straight. The guy who played the evilest one (Lord Blackwood from Sherlock Holmes the first )…I know I’m terrible at actor’s names… did his usual, “i am very evil and you know it” type gig. Very archetypal evil character who really doesn’t change or do anything really dynamic.

CGI Characters
“I didn’t think it felt “cartoony” at all…….Their mouth movements were very believable and their musculature was good. Their skin texture looked good too. I was impressed and was not distracted by any of the animation elements. I’m sure you know they are not exactly as described in the book, no antennae and their eyes are placed more like humans and less like traditional aliens. In fact, I felt all of the non-humans were well done.”
I felt the movie was a little long. But I was glad it wasn’t over yet because I really wanted to see what happened next. I felt the ending was rushed.

Some of the effects were unfinished, especially the landscape, so I can’t speak much for that. All of the creatures seemed real and not cartoony to me. The baby Tharks were really cute actually. The ships and cities were pretty good, but as I said a lot of it was unfinished as the guy who introduced the film told us.

You know, that was one of the questions on the survey and honestly I couldn’t remember if I liked it or not. When I saw Sherlock Holmes the soundtrack really stood out and I recognized the signature Hans Zimmer sound. I assume the JC soundtrack was neither excellent or horrible because it didn’t strike me either way. Then again, I wasn’t listening for it. My 14 year old son says that the music fit the scenes and that it was ‘cool” (great details I know). My husband also says it was not memorable. Sorry I can’t give better details.

I felt the love-story was much better than the book. In the book they give one sentence about how they are married and suddenly have an egg. also they are not separated as often as in the book, so you get to see more interaction between the characters.

In the movie there is a lot of sexual tension between the two characters that makes you wish they would just kiss already, and they finally do of course.

Also they paralleled between JC;’s deceased earth wife and Dejah is well done presents an internal conflict which is interesting. I thought the romance was well done.

Arena Scene
If you mean the scene in the arena, I felt the apes were really cool (like half-ape, half-abominable snowman). A little over-sized, but I suppose that adds to the drama that JC can actually defeat creatures of such magnitude. Sometimes action scenes of that sort can go on far too long, but I felt this one was just the right length.

If you mean the whole atmosphere of the entire arena, what was there was good. The animation was unfinished, but it was reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum.

Battle Scenes

The whole film was full of battles, skirmishes, ambushes and the like. I’ll try not to spoil much. I mentioned earlier that at times I feel that battle scenes can drag in movies, but these seemed the right length. As far as the ‘epic’ battle at the end, there is a lot of things that happen prior to that increase the suspense of the whole deal, which I liked so you don’t get the cliche sword-clanging for 15 minutes.

As for the finale — no spoilers but this film, it is an entirely group effort and although John Carter is of course the focus, the other characters hold their own. The whole film is very character driven which I found very refreshing for an action movie. The battle was not “well-planned” (I’m not taking about the writing, I’m talking about how the characters orchestrated it) and that adds to the drama…… In short, I liked it. It’s disney and for kids, so you’re not going to see rolling, bloody heads or anything like that.

Who is this movie for?

At the screening, they turned people away who were not accompanied by at least one child in that age group. (10-15).  However, I believe the movie is for everyone. People are going to say it’s like Star Wars, because I’m sure Lucas read Burroughs’ book at some point and it’s content leaped into his subconscious and came forth on the pages when he wrote Star Wars. I’m sure people will say the same about Avatar for the same reasons. For me, it was refreshing that the setting was Mars, and not some crazy made up name that’s hard to keep straight. I really can’t say how I think it should be marketed. Anyone of any age would enjoy it. There is nothing offensive or out of order about it. Who saw Toy Story? Everyone. Who liked Toy Story? Everyone. I’m not saying it’s better than Toy Story, just that anyone would enjoy it.

13 thoughts on “Test screening reviewer posts: “I saw John Carter at a Neilsen screening and I loved it” and sends movie discussion board into a frenzy

  1. Hi Steve…did you see anything in the new review that makes you more hopeful?

    From my perspective, I just can’t think of any film adaptation of a novel I loved that didn’t deviate more than I would have liked, so I tend to evaluate Stanton’s choices from that perspective. I always felt that as much as I loved ERB, adapting APOM for cinema would be difficult in part because of the episodic, serial-friendly structure, as well as some character decisions ERB made that modern day critic just flat won’t accept. I don’t agree with some of the decisions, but I’m not surprised by them. For example — the dead wife and child choice is understandable but I think he had a perfectly good character starting point that Burroughs never explored in much detail — that being the affect of JC’s agelessness which would, logically, cause him to have loved ones grow old around him while he stayed young, producing a sense of isolation etc that Burroughs didn’t explore, but which Stanton could have explored to good effect without “deviating from the story.” The other Stanton decision that bothers me (and one I haven’t heard too many complaints about) is the attempt to connect what’s happening on Mars back to Earth (“Earth will be next” from the most recent TV spots). I always felt that part of the peculiar appeal of Burroughs was that although it wasn’t pure fantasy (i.e. with no reference whatsoever to the ‘real world’), it had that fantasy magic of transporting you to an alternate universe that existed without much reference to our own world.

    In both cases, it’s easy to see that Stanton is proceeding from his own personal movie=making mantra: “make me care”. He may be overly concerned with that, IMO.

    But my concerns are more on those levels — not on the level that a lot of ERBists are complaining about– Zodanga on wheels, “upgraded” Therns, etc.

    And I’m thankful for all the things that are intact — Barsoom generally, Dejah, Tars, Sola, etc……

    My other thought is — have you read any of the other screenplays from the Paramount or earlier Disney period? I have, and Stanton’s is generally closer than any of the other ones I have read, and I’m thankful for that …..

  2. admin,

    I thought that I’d acknowledged the veracity of the original review in my second post. if I wasn’t, then I will be here: it’s now my understanding that the original test screen review was legit.

    That said, the majority of my post addressed issues with this film that were unrelated to the legitimacy of the review, and those opinions stand.

  3. Steve, thanks for your comment. There’s another authentic advance review out this morning — this one from someone who saw it at a distributor screening in Europe. You might find it interesting. http://thejohncarterfiles.com/blog/2012/02/12/advance-screening-review-john-carter-historical-emotional-45-stars/.

    Re your continued skepticism about the “better than the book” comment — the author of the review is a real person whose name is Rebecca Garland and she’d be happy to correspond with you directly if you’re interested in hearing more details about her experience. She had not heard of ERB when she went to the Neilsen test screening; she liked the movie; then read the book. She’s a teacher, a proponent of teen reading and she helped originate our teen reading project and is working to stimulate interest in reading ERB among teens. You can see her on video here talking to students in our reading program about the books and her interest in stimulating reading of the books that she only discovered after viewing the movie. http://thejohncarterfiles.com/blog/2012/01/29/video-teen-readers-voice-opinions-on-the-book-that-is-the-basis-for-disneys-john-carter-a-princess-of-mars-by-edgar-rice-burroughs/

    You are of course welcome to remain skeptical or her authenticity, but if you could let go of your “it’s possibly all bogus” orientation questioning Becky’s authenticity, it would open up much more interesting discussion of the relationship between the movie and the books and how the movie is likely to affect people who aren’t familiar with the books.

  4. well, as I caveated, I did not have access to information that would reveal the sequence of events. Kinda hard to swallow a “better than the book” comment when you are under the impression that the book might not have been read.

    In my opinion, when a film is made to appeal to a particular audience and the story it is based on takes second seat, we are all in for disappointment.

    On other discussion groups I’ve talked with people who want to make excuses for Hollywood, but time and time again it appears that just a little more creativity, a little bit more hard work – and TRUST in your audience – is what makes for a good film, not checking off boxes provided by the marketing department.

    I have a great deal of respect for both the original works and for Michael Chabon – but it looks like we’ll have to wait yet another generation before Edgar Rice Burrough’s Under the Moons of Mars will come to the screen. This ‘thing’ is perhaps as close to the original as I, Robot was to Asimov’s works. As in – not at all and an affront to the original material.

    Ber they sell a lot of plush Woolas though….

  5. Although the books have inspired the likes of Star Wars, Avatar etc, it does look like John Carter the film is inspired itself by those films, hence the similarity quoted by people who have seen the trailers. Not saying that’s a bad thing (familiarity is good up to a point), but I guess, as someone I was conversing on Twitter said, it’s always going to be more of a tribute to the Barsoom books than a direct adaptation.

    Personally, I’ve got no problem with that, after all, there is 100 years between when the story was first published and to when the film is released, and it’s inevitable that certain set-pieces will have to be changed to fit the modern audience.

    If the film inspires a new generation to wonder about the source material and pick up the books, as it has done myself (always heard of but never read, currently up to Book 7), then more power to it. And it looks like Disney has cranked up their PR machine a bit more and it’s always good that sites like this keep spreading the word.

  6. Regardless of whether the review is authentic (I assume it is), I agree the film bears all the signs of being market-researched to death, or at least transformed into an entirely different, and more conventional, plotline.

    All the beats and cliche’s we’ve come to expect in modern hollywood epics: the reluctant hero, the warrior princess, the mastermind villain with a deadly new technology that threatens the whole world (and specifically Earth) all now appear in trailers for this film.

    They did not come from the book.

    Even the way it’s visualized seems to deliberately invite comparison to other films – the silly blue energy, for instance, which appears recently in everything from Iron Man to Cowboys/Aliens. Or the White Ape Arena scene which, I’m sorry, truly does owe just as much to Attack of the Clones as it does to the book it doesn’t actually happen in.

    What is described as exotic and savage has been uniformly toned down to look familiar and friendly. All the diverse races of Barsoom portrayed, entirely, by caucasian actors. The dialogue in the trailers bears almost no resemblance to Burroughs, being composed entirely of one-liners that could have fit into any other sci-fi adventure. The edges are all sanded off and the heroes have been re-written to fit our 21st century modern cliches instead of the romantic ones they were meant to be.

    It just doesn’t look very good.

  7. I read Tarzan and John Carter of Mars while in High School all on my own. Didn’t even report on them. Just read them because I love Edgar Rice Burroughs writing. I had a dog years later when I was a father of six and named my Chow Woola. Can’t wait to see him in action. Can’t wait to see what the movie industry does to John Carter of Mars. I hope you have educated writers that don’t reduce the dialog to four letter expletives. That would be most disappointing. There were none in the book, so there should be none in the movie.

  8. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I can assure you that the comments are legit and the reviewer is as advertised — a Long Beach school teacher who attended the Neilsen screening on the date indicated and then downloaded and read the book. Her comments encapsulated in this post were culled from a series of exchanges she had on the IMDB message board that weekend — so in other words, people were directly asking her questions about those very things that had been under discussion, and she was answering. If you look elsewhere on this site you will see that we have a “John Carter Teen Reading Project” and the reviewer, whose name is Rebecca Garland, is actively participating in trying to get teens to read the books, etc. She’s a bona fide person and her comments are real. And Neilsen and Disney have both independently confirmed that there was in fact a John Carter Test Screening on that day. Again, thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  9. I don’t know. I sense “marketing shill” more than anything else.

    I wasn’t on the “movie discussion board” so do not know the actual sequence of events, but I find it very interesting that you state (here, above) “he had never heard of the film or the book prior to going to the screening, which was Friday. Afterwards she downloaded a copy of Princess of Mars and read it over the weekend.”

    If this is the case, some of her comments do not ring true (if the sequence is – commentary, questions, download, read).

    For example, she states:

    “Woola the dog:
    Awesome. Everyone loved Woola. He was my favorite character, actually. He had a cool “save-the-day” scene that was not in the book, ”


    “I felt the love-story was much better than the book. ”

    (Of course, if the sequence was different, then disregard the above.)

    The other problem I have is that the commentary seems to be directly pointed at the concerns that have been raised about the film ever since it was first announced – and pointedly so.

    It may very well not be, but this whole thing comes across to me as a sub rosa marketing campaign to undermine the pre-release criticisms – which, if true, means that the producers are very concerned about the reception the film will get, as in not very confident that it will do well.

    I’m not expecting much from this movie; it has all the signs of a classic work of science fiction being demographicked to destruction by studio marketing types; gotta have a plush toy…gotta throw in a conflict from Earth (Carter’s dead wife & son); gotta muck up the whole thing with a ‘gateway to mars’ bs explanation.

    My prediction is – it may have some traction with the younger set – until they get old enough to read and appreciate the books, then all enthusiasm will die and – no franchise, which this is clearly designed to be.

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