Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, James Pureofy, Dominic West, Mark Strong
Running Time of 132 Minutes
The story of John Carter is a fabled one, both in terms of its place in the history of science fiction literature and in its long path to finally make it to the silver screen. The first book to feature John Carter, “A Princess of Mars,” was written almost 100 years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan), and many say that Carter’s exploits directly influenced a good majority of what we now know as science fiction/fantasy. Since the early 1930s various studios and directors have expressed interest in adapting the classic stories into a film, and thanks to Walt Disney Pictures and Andrew Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and the masterful Wall-E), John Carter finally rides on the big screen.
The hubbub leading up to John Carter’s release is unlike any I have seen. The marketing was admittedly weak, and the stories of expanding budgets thanks to Stanton’s perfectionist qualities (something that is to be expected from an animator) carried a negative edge. But there is no such thing as bad press, to my mind, and regardless of how John Carter fares at the box office it will serve its place in modern film history. That Stanton is such a perfectionist is both a bad and a good thing. Much of the success of John Carter is thanks to the design, and it is a handsome film that owes its debt to many of the classic Hollywood epics of Romans and swords and sandals. The film takes on a suitably epic tone that recalls the work of David Lean or William Wyler, and it does a good job of transporting the audience to a new, unknown place. From Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score to the classic style of the visual effects (which are solid, but not spectacular), it is clear that this film owes a lot to the stylings of old Hollywood. In many ways that is refreshing.
As John Carter, Taylor Kitsch has an appealing and charismatic presence, complete with a gravely voice and a toned body. He carries the film on his shoulders, and he is able to craft a likable character with a strong emotional core. Kitch’s work keeps the film emotionally resonant and grounded, and he makes for a dashing hero. It’s not a terrific performance, but it’s perfect for this film with just the right hint of humor and wit. Lynn Collins as Deja Thoris is the perfect scifi/fantasy heroine; strong, compelling, and beautiful. She is every bit Kitcsh’s equal. John Carter is a busy film, filled with betrayals and warring races and epic cities, and although it is a bit dense it makes for a suitably complex (if not a bit too complex) narrative that requires the audience to attempt to keep up. We are presented with the warring cities of Helium and Zodanga, and it is up to their Red and Blue flags to help keep them straight. We also meet the strange race of the Tharks, a neutral, almost savage race, adorned with multiple hands and tusks. The Tharks are appealingly alien in design, and they look very cool when engaging in epic battle scenes or smaller fight sequences. The film talks constantly about finding and having a cause, and this is the struggle that John Carter faces. He must come to terms as a man and cement himself as the hero and savior that this Mars needs. Andrew Stanton made incredibly emotionally resonant films with Finding Nemo and Wall-E, and although John Carter doesn’t compare in terms of loveliness, that sense of earnestness comes forth and makes for a better film than the negative hype suggets.
In an effort to create a grand and epic fantasy, Stanton and his team have done yeoman’s work. There are moments of true greatness – Woola is an adorable character, the epilogue is fantastic, John Carter’s emotional arc, an epic fight scene in which Carter jumps into a horde of Tharks – cemented by an otherwise workable film. One of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, contributed to the screenplay but I’m not sure I quite see his mark. Regardless, John Carter is a fun and emotional epic, perhaps a bit uneven, but at its best when Michael Giacchino’s incredible score swells and epic vistas are presented before us. Ignore all of the negative nonsense that has befallen John Carter and simply go and have a good, old fashioned time.
Note: I viewed the film in IMAX 3D. The 3D was, to my mind, not noticeable.