Despite a marketing campaign that told you nothing about the film, a 5 year development time, the changing of the title, and previews that made the movie look like the worst parts of Star Wars Episode II, John Carter ends up being an incredibly fun, incredibly beautiful, incredibly complex, and incredibly brutal film that seems like a return to the classic fantasy films that the new Clash of the Titans wishes it could be.
John Carter is based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that were written in the early 1900s. The series spans 11 novels and the film is mostly adapted from the first, The Princess of Mars. I haven’t read these, but after watching the film I’m pretty sure it’s going to be making it’s way into my eyes as soon as I get a tablet.
John Carter is a former Confederate soldier who after returning from war to find that everything he loved in life is gone becomes a prospector looking for a hidden cache of gold in hopes that riches will fill the void left after the war. While trying to evade being drafted again, he hides inside a cave full of Martian glyphs and encounters a being that magically transports him to Mars. He discovers while on mars that he has increased strength allowing him to leap tall buildings in a single bound (basically Superman only the book was written a decade before the Man of Steel). From here we follow a classic heroes journey where John Carter not just becomes the savior of Mars, but also saves himself by finding a new reason to live.
Most Disney live action adventure movies over the last decade have really disappointed me. I’m so openly and passinatly a hater of the pirates movies which have been printing money despite the fact that they’re in almost every way horrible, predictable, and ringing the same bell over and over again like the retarded kid in high school band who could only handle rocking the triangle. Because of this I was ready to write off John Carter the second I saw the first trailer. Deciding to actually go see this movie was really a last minute change of heart. I’m glad I did.
The film was directed by Andrew Stanton (all 3 Toy Stories, Wall-E, Up) and this was his live action debut. Much like fellow Pixar creator, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol), he brings with him to live action a visual component that’s sadly lost on most live action directors. He’s able to make the empty landscapes of Mars feel desolate, but somehow at the same time so vibrant and spectacular. Action scenes were epic in scale and really felt like something I hadn’t seen before. The majority of the special effects were stunning with the exception of the Tharks who sometimes felt very real, but sometimes came off as cartoony as Jar Jar. In fact, I’m willing to bet that their inclusion in the trailers for the film is what turned a lot of people off to the idea of it whether they know it or not.
I saw the film in 3D. There’s only been a few occasions where I felt the 3D really enhanced a film (Avatar, Green Hornet, Captain America) and John Carter wasn’t one of them. I felt it actually took a little bit away from the presentation. The 3D was really only used to add a little depth to some scenes, but I could tell from the composition of a lot of the shots that it wasn’t really needed. Also, the tint that comes from 3D glasses (often making everything a little darker) took away from the vibrant, red, low lit landscape. Perhaps if 3D was possible on the big screen without glasses it’d be better, but I’d say that it’s okay to save a few bucks on the 2D version.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) brings to life the title character with a gruff persona covering a complex character in turmoil and hopelessness that you can empathize with, but also have fun with as you see him grow. Kitsch is by no means going to win an academy awards for his performance, but I was impressed with the amount of depth he brought to the character, to which I didn’t really know he had the chops for. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) plays the princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris. She’s a strong, intelligent and beautiful character the likes of which are rarely seen in film, especially one with the moniker of “princess.” The rest of the cast is all-star including performances from Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3), Mark Strong (Kick-Ass, Green Lantern) Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Batman: Year One) Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ, Spider-Man) and many others including a voice cameo from John Favreau (who was originally attached to direct). Honestly I feel it’s one of the best cast flicks in recent memory.
This is a Disney film so you can expect it to be family friendly, but like the Pixar films that Stanton hails from it does so by staying honest to the story with a focus on character. Every important character feels incredibly developed, the dialouge was fun and there are brillaint comedic sequences that serve to remind the audience that you’re supossed to have fun with adventure movies while still maintaining the gritty and stylized tone of Mars. For a film about a guy who lost his family, is thrown into a whole new world and has to lead a rebellion to save a planet that’s on it’s last leg from being enslaved, it does a great job of making you care, but also smile. There’s a lot of plot lines and story seeds planted in the movie and it’s able to juggle them without making it overly complicated.
Sadly, due to poor advertising and relatively unknown leads, John Carter is currently flopping in the box office. This is incredibly unfortunate because it’s one of the most imaginative and fun movies I’ve seen in recent memories based on a property that’s almost 100 years old yet is still more innovative and creative than 95% of the crap coming out of Hollywood. I urge everyone to go out and see this movie because this is one of those cases that the word “franchise” is not dirty. I would love to see the other novels adapted so I can have a nice, shiny Blu-Ray set on my shelf for those rainy day movie marathons. It’s been a long road of developmental hell getting John Carter to the big screen (almost as long as the books have been around), but the final product was well worth it.
I use the word “fun” a lot through the review, because that’s what this was. This tickled all the favorite parts of my imagination. There were some flaws, but over all I had a great time and it was a great live action debut for Andrew Stanton and leading role for Taylor Kitsch. 4 out 5.
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