Summary: A flawed but fun B+ movie that recognizes and embraces its pulp roots and is all the better for it.
** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the film.**
The quick skinny on the movie.
In the 1880s, a well-known archeological adventurer from Virginia named John Carter dies in New York, leaving his estate and the tale of the great escapades of his life to his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs reads the harrowing story of how Carter, a Civil War veteran who lost his wife and daughter, is transported from Earth to the planet Mars while searching for gold in Arizona. On Mars, which the natives call Barsoom, he becomes a slave to the alien Tharks but quickly proves himself a worthy ally. He intercedes in the chase of the princess Dejah Thoris by peoples of a moving city called Zodanga. With superhuman strength and the ability to jump high and far that his physiology gives him on the alien world, Dejah believes Carter can help change the tide in the war between her people in the city of Helium and the Zodangans. Carter merely wants to find his way home, but in the process finds himself and his calling in life.
The in-depth review.
One thing should be made very clear from the get-go – something that Disney’s complete mishandling of the marketing of this film buries – John Carter never strives to be more than the B(-plus) movie, pulpy roots of its story. It’s grand and epic but not self-importantly or pretentiously so in the way that so many large-scale Hollywood films are today. It is not high art but it is high adventure. That’s not to say its production isn’t first rate nor that its effort exceeds its grasp. This is a movie adapted from stories that were meant simply to entertain that does just that.
Andrew Stanton, one of the key components of Pixar’s success, has an obvious love and care for the material. He spoke recently at TED about crafting stories and it was evident how this story meant as much to him as the fantastic ones he shepherded in Finding Nemo and WALL-E. This passion is most clear in the tone and approach he took to the movie.
Burroughs’ stories of John Carter, the Confederate American Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars and becomes embroiled in their own war, have long informed the popular science fantasy genre over the last hundred years. Much has been made in discussing the film and its source that the character’s and stories’ influence can be felt in everything from Star Wars to Avatar to Indiana Jones to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon to the most popular anime. The problem with that discourse is that so many have exalted these stories beyond the scope or reason of their author. While they’ve become important for the genre and are literate, they weren’t designed to be classics or property of the elite. They were written for the adventurer in all of us.
Stanton’s approach is very reverent of that fact and the film makes no apologies for that. Yes, there is a significant history and mythology to Burroughs’ planet of Barsoom, the native moniker for our lovely red neighbor. So much so that most of the audience would probably need a guide to understand it all. Stanton tackles this head-on by thrusting us right into the action, whisking us along with Carter as he tries to make sense of it for himself. There are pauses for exposition in the script to help wrap some intelligent thought around what is going on around Carter, but the majority of the film is built on reaction rather than reflection. It’s guaranteed that most won’t understand everything about Mars but they will understand Carter’s journey and the connections he makes to the fantastic denizens of this strange new world.
As John Carter, Taylor Kitsch cuts a serviceable and amenable figure on-screen. There isn’t a tremendous amount of depth or variation to what he brings to the part, and his particular breathy approach to dialogue leaves one wanting for more than just soulful smoldering (or the appearance of it). Still, there is a natural likability about Kitsch that makes you want to root for him and the timbre of his performance does give you the idea that Carter is affected by the death of his wife and daughter, even if it comes off more surface than core deep at times. He also doesn’t waver in his belief in and reaction to everything going on around him, which is a huge blessing for a film like this that is over 90% special effect. When he accepts his place on Barsoom and his feelings for Dejah Thoris, the so-called “princess of Mars” who serves as the title character of the main story that the film is based on, there is a conviction and joy to Kitsch’s performance that sweeps the audience right along into the bustling fervor of the third act. And while his physique certainly fits, he brings a passion and presence to the physical requirements of the part that make him an enjoyable action star.
Dejah is brought to thrilling life by Lynn Collins, who shoulders the majority of the depth and emotion not seen elsewhere, and she helps to make the film buoyant. With Dominic West’s Sab Than not much more than a snarling, mustache twisting-character, and Mark Strong’s Matai Shrang a solid but metered presence, Collins adds the spark and verve the film needs to make Mars come to life and to make us care. She has a complete understanding and command of her character, a role that could easily have been a damsel-in-distress part or a shrill “girl power” statement that’s far from appealing or enlightening, a la Gemma Atherton’s Princess in Prince of Persia. Dejah is every bit Carter’s equal in organic ways and, while their romance seems bit rushed, it’s not hard to see why both come to care for each other as well as fall for each other.
The majority of the characters and set pieces in the film are CGI creations, particularly the four-armed Tharks, a green-skinned species that fit the Martian mold as we Earthlings know it a little more closely. While there is never a moment when you’re not aware that these creatures aren’t real, it doesn’t become long before you are invested in the performances of Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, and, especially, Samantha Morton as characters. While Church’s Tal Hajus is written as a one-note, power-hungry thug who wants nothing to do with Carter, he imbues the character with such vigor that the note plays well. Dafoe, whose voice sounds both familiar and nothing like what he’s done before, brings a charm and righteousness to Tars Tarkas that captivates you, even in those moments when his viciousness is quite repulsive. It’s impressive that Stanton makes no apologies for who the Tharks are, a species as violent and ugly as the evil Zodangans but just as proud and upstanding as those from Helium. He makes them feel lived in, which helps to not only suspend disbelief but come to care and root for them. Morton’s Sola is a particular standout, giving the film some exceptional humanity, both in how’s she’s treated as a being and in familial ties that echo stronger than the ones between Dejah and her father Tardos (Ciarán Hinds).
A major concern of the film going into it was the look of Mars itself. Filmed primarily in the deserts of Utah, one can’t help but feel that Barsoom looks curiously like Earth. This is admittedly distracting at first but this decision is not only rooted in the story but becomes a benefit for the design of the film. Carter’s story is as much about a man who is in seemingly familiar surroundings but is out-of-place as it is about exploits in strange lands. Carter, a man out of touch with himself, eventually finds his true purpose and discovers that this place is home, even if he can spring hundreds of feet into the air or throw boulders around. Beyond that, grounding the look of Barsoom into something more Earth-like actually helps to give an air of authenticity to the proceedings, making everything seem more real than if the audience was trying to process the alien look of a red planet with everything occurring. One need only look at the Star Wars prequels to feel how disconnected the action elements on the foreign worlds felt. It turns out to be a smart choice.
As is much in the film. John Carter isn’t without flaws, though. The script, by Stanton & Marc Andrews with a polish by Michael Chabon, could’ve used a bit more tweaking, particularly in some of the dialogue. Carter’s aversion to war, aside from his personal loss, could’ve been more informed. Some of what they crammed of the Martian conflict could’ve been excised and used in subsequent films. That might have allowed more of the human-like “Red Man” characters to display more character. (That said, each character was fun in its own right.) Also, the closing bookend felt rushed in its execution.
Overall, the sense of fun and wonder, not to mention humor; the broad strokes of good vs. evil; and the feeling of a larger story all perfectly encapsulate the thrust of Burroughs’ Barsoom series. It has been ages since I’ve read any of the John Carter stories, so I’m by no means an expert. There might be a number of elements of the story that the film gets wrong but it understands its spirit, accompanied beautifully by Michael Giacchino’s rousing score, and that is what this film needed. Some might say that the various things on display are derivative of the science fiction, fantasy, and space opera that we’ve become so familiar with in cinema, but that’s a bit backhanded because this is the originator. It’s commendable that Stanton stuck to its roots rather than trying to translate into something it’s not simply to be different from the descendants.
Stanton is able to translate his success in animation to live-action very well, even if the film is still heavily CG-dependent. He is a storyteller with heart and that pours through in every frame on the screen with the rapture of a young boy telling tales to his friends. As anyone who gave into imagination as a kid, John Carter dares you to leave the theater without feeling inspired and infused with a sense of adventure.