Film Review: John Carter
How can John Carter, a film that’s basically the visual representation of a centuries old novel which has in the mean time inspired almost every piece of science fiction adventure fantasy, feel like a non-derivative, worthwhile experience? Much like John Carter’s own prospects, while it look quite dire and grim for him at the outset, when it’s over things have brightened up considerably.
John Carter’s greatest asset is director Andrew Stanton, his Pixar roots clearly cut deep. Be it the clever editing of some early scenes for comedic effect or most prominently adorable dog-like creature Woola (probably the film’s best chance to penetrate the pop culture lexicon, he’s impossible not to love), the production is lathered in that Pixar charm. While not as successful a transition as Brad Bird‘s last year with Mission Impossible, Stanton still does much better work than many supposedly experienced directors. He must be applauded for a spectacularly well made action scene where we’re shown why exactly why John is so nihilistic and depressed at the beginning of the film, whilst also showing how capable he is. The film’s action, or perhaps overall, highlight.
As such the film doesn’t hinge on Taylor Kitsch as much as one would have thought. Which is a good thing as he’s fairly middle of the road, not bad enough to drag it down but not good enough to elevate it. Kitsch should be thankful to Stanton for conveying his character’s thoughts and emotions so well for him. Kitsch really works best when he’s on-screen with Lily Collins, the beautiful and expertly capable princess of Mars. Their budding, playful romance is really charming and you’ll end up caring about their relationship, at least for the running time, more than them as individuals.
What helps the two of them immensely is the fact that they’re flanked on either side by excellent character actors, accustomed to this type of genre fair. Willem Dafoe is terrific as the leader of the four armed, green-skinned Tharks, with Thomas Hayden Church being suitably menacing as he constantly tries to overthrow him. James Purefoy gets one excellent hostage taking scene and Ciarán Hinds, much like Bryan Cranston, continues to be in every movie. Both are great. Simon West is never not an evil dude and you won’t like him here. Mission accomplished. Mark Strong gives Dafoe a run for his money as best supporting character, appearing as the omnipresent leader of mysterious missionaries of the goddess Issus, known as Therns. Strong is just so despicable, especially after the Thern motivations are reveled, and his presences always serves to elevate what he’s in.
What carries John Carter most of the way to the finish line is the feeling of culture shock the viewer experiences through the main character as he’s transposed to the very foreign world of Barsoom (or Mars to us Jarsoom folk). Discovering the planet’s rich mythology, civilizations, customs and technology is a treat and you’ll actively want to learn more about the universe. It all feels considerably grand and epic in scale. Chalk that up to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ terrific world and the film’s great pacing. What’s also great is that the film never panders to you or shoves exposition in your face, it expects you to pay attention and do a fair amount of thinking. Not only that but its every attempt at humor hits the mark. A breath of fresh air in mainstream blockbuster film making.
Michael Giacchino is fast becoming one of the best composers working today and while his score isn’t as memorable or moving as, say, his work on Super 8, it clearly has his stamp on it and fits the proceedings, setting the mood effectively. Plus, the main theme, a stirring piece, is excellent.
Everything looks very good, the creatures are convincingly animated and are quite visually stimulating to look at. The same goes for the vehicles, technology and architecture. Really the only fault in the film’s otherwise great technical presentation is the sometimes bad-looking green screen. It’s not enough to take you out of the film but it’s noticeable.
The post converted 3D is perhaps the best of its ilk as it doesn’t actively distract from the viewing experience, possibly helped by most of the running time being spent during daylight. That said the film does little to take advantage of the medium and in the end you’re better of seeing it in glorious 2D.
Final Verdict: Don’t let the poor marketing discourage you. It’s not a groundbreaking cinematic experience but above all it’s a fun adventure, and one well worth going on. Don’t be surprised if by the end you’ll be craving a Woola plushy and a second journey to Barsoom.
Addendum: How Disney thought that re-titling the film would keep people from thinking it’s a sci-fi story is beyond me as it goes full-bore sci-fi fantasy in the first minute. I always thought that John Carter of Mars was a much better title, and happily by the end the naming scheme makes sense.
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- Daily Trailer: Finally There’s a Reason to Invest in John Carter’s Adventure (filmophilia.com)
- Daily Trailer: John Carter Fans Seem to Know John Carter Better than Disney Does (filmophilia.com)
- Producer and Director Deny Reports of Gargantuan Budget for John Carter (filmophilia.com)
- Top Five Special: What Films Could Disappoint in 2012? (filmophilia.com)