Browse Josh's Portfolio and the Comic, Reviews or Blog archive.

Josh Reviews John Carter

Buckle up, my friends, I have a lot to say.

I adore Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the film adaptation of the first book, A Princess of Mars, for quite a while now.  I’ve also been mystified — as I have written about several times in the past few months — by the staggeringly abysmal marketing campaign of this film.  From the stupidly truncated title, to the bland, boring posters, to the weird trailers that studiously avoided ANY reference to the word “Mars” (thus rendering them incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the story), the whole thing felt like the studio was running away from the sci-fi pulpiness of source material.  Which made me wonder, why make the film at all?  The involvement of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (making his live-action directorial debut) gave me some hope, but I was very, very dubious when sitting down in the theater to see this film.

There is a lot that John Carter gets very, very right.  There are also a number of very unfortunate mis-steps.  The result is a film that is far from great but also far, far better than the ad-campaign would have you suspect.  I feel sorry for the filmmakers that their movie has been so brutally maligned in the press as a huge flop.  The bad press will almost certainly keep anyone on the fence away from seeing the film (thus ensuring the film’s status as a major money-loser), which is a shame, and I think it’s doubly unfortunate that a big, sci-fi spectacle that has actually been made with some intelligence is going to be seen as a major failure, thus lessening the chances of getting future great sci-fi films made, while meanwhile they’ll continue to churn out Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

Let’s start with what’s good:

Tar Tarkas is absolutely perfect.  Perfectly voiced by Willem Dafoe, and brought to life via stunning CGI effects, this fierce Jeddak of the Tharks who befriends John Carter is, to me, the heart of the story.  I feel the filmmakers HAD to get Tars right in order for the film to succeed, and man did they nail it.  Reading the books, the existence of the Tharks — a multi-armed, huge green race of Martian aliens — seemed to me to be one of the biggest obstacles in anyone ever translating the story to the screen, but I found the depiction of the Tharks to be amazing.  The filmmakers wisely made a few tweaks to Burroughs’ descriptions (these Tharks have four arms, rather than six, and while they are much taller than humans they are not quite as humongous as in the book) while still somehow making them look just the way I’d always imagined.  The character-design of the Tharks are perfection, and the CGI effects that bring those designs to life are masterful and seamless.  It’s astonishing how far we have come with CGI effects — we spend a LOT of time with a huge tribe of Tharks, and while watching the film I never once paused to consider the visual effects.  Tars Tarkas and the other Tharks were just real, plain and simple.  It’s a terrific achievement.

Andrew Stanton received a lot of criticism when the film’s trailers were first released for the lack of RED in his film’s Martian locales.  And I tend to agree that the film’s blue-skies, brown-land, American midwestern look was a bit surprising to me at first.  But when watching the film, I thought the look totally worked.  John Carter is gorgeous, and I was dazzled by the way in which the many different Martian locations and races were brought to life.  John Carter is an epic fantasy, and the world-building we witness in this film is on a scale of The Lord of the Rings. I was particularly taken with the design of the flying airships, which also somehow looked exactly like I’d always pictured them.  I loved the air-combat sequences in the film (and wish there were more of them!).

I wrote above that getting Tars Tarkas right was critical to the success of the film, and the same could be said of Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars with whom John Carter, in the books, falls immediately in love.  While the film’s depiction of Dejah Thoris wasn’t quite as just-the-way-I’d-imagined as Tars Tarkas was, I was very impressed by Lynn Collins’ work in the film.  She has the incredible beauty of Dejah Thoris, and she convincingly captured the character’s fierceness.  Her costumes were fantastic, tantalizing without being too laughably skimpy.  I think the film makes a small mistake in making Dejah Thoris a genius scientist — is it not enough that she’s the most beautiful and the most honorable and the most brave woman on the planet??  I laughed a bit when we learn that she’s the head of the science academy too, but this is a small mis-step.

I love Ciaran Hinds, and it was fun to see him as the ruler of the noble city of Helium, Tardos Mors.  No one plays a villain better than Mark Strong (as seen in Sherlock Holmes, Kick Ass, and many other films) and he’s dynamite as the enigmatic puppet-master Matai Shang.  I suppose it’s too much to hope that Dominic West will ever again have a role as complex and nuanced as Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, but putting that aside he’s fun to watch as the other scenery-chewing bad-guy of the film, the Red Martian Sab Than.  All of these actors, as well as everyone else in supporting roles, take the material totally seriously and really engage with the film’s story.  There’s no tongue-in-cheek mugging at the camera to be found here.

So what doesn’t work?

Well, first and foremost, I still feel (just as I did when the casting was first announced), that Taylor Kitsch was totally mis-cast as John Carter.  He’s particularly unconvincing in the early scenes of the film.  The film opens in the 1800’s in which we first meet the broken Civil War vet John Carter.  An Army cavalry regiment is trying to get John to fight for them, but he refuses to have anything to do with combat ever again.  These early scenes are critical, as we need to see John Carter as a completely broken, unheroic shell of a man.  But I never bought Mr. Kitsch’s performance — under a fake-looking beard and putting on Christian Bale’s raspy Batman voice, he looked to me like an actor PLAYING broken rather than those emotions feeling REAL.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Stanton chose to play John’s repeated attempts to escape from the cavalry troops for comedy, rather than the tragically mounting desperation of a man who has had his fill of war and death.

The whole beginning of the film is a mess.  There’s a ridiculous and unnecessary voice-over narration that opens the film that throws all kinds of silly-sounding names (Zodanga, Helium, etc.) at the audience.  It felt unnecessary and potentially disastrously confounding and silly to anyone unfamiliar with the source material.  I don’t know why fantasy films insist on these sorts of prologues.   (Just last summer I thought it was a big mistake in Green Lantern.)  Better to just start with your main character and let the audience discover, with him, the larger world into which he is going to be thrust.  When the prologue ends and we meet John Carter on Earth, we also meet the actor who puts on a sort of goofy cluelessness as John’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Now, I LOVE that the film preserved this framing device, in which the book’s author (Edgar Rice Burroughs) actually introduces himself as a character in the story.  But I thought the poor young actor playing Burroughs was just terrible, with over-the-top mugging substituting for the portrayal of real emotion at his discovery of the sudden (apparent) death of his beloved uncle, John Carter.  When Bryan Cranston finally enters the film (in a brief role as the cavalry officer trying to recruit John Carter), it’s a relief to finally see a real actor, but it also throws into stark relief just how bad the performances have been up to that point.

Things get much better, much faster, as soon as John finds himself “telegraphed” to Barsoom.  (That’s the Martian name for their planet, for those newbies out there.)  I think Talyor Kitsch is much better playing the swashbuckling, adventurous John Carter than he was playing the sad, Earth-bound Carter.  I still don’t think he’s great, but once the story shifts to Barsoom I thought he was fine and not distracting in any way from the adventure.  I love his initial meeting with Tars Tarkas and introduction to the Tharks, and things zip along in a fun, adventurous way from then on out.

But some problems persist.  I loved the look of the Woola, the huge Martian “pet” who befriends John, but the Looney Tunes style depiction of his super-speed did not work for me.  I also don’t understand why the filmmakers chose to play so coy with the tragedy in John’s past.  I feel we have to wait way, way too long into the movie to get the full story, and even then I think a more fleshed-out flashback would have been helpful, so we could really understand just where John was (I assume he was off fighting in the Civil War though the film never specifically says that), nor do we exactly learn what went down with his family.  The lack of clarity is confusing, whereas if that had been presented more clearly I think it would have added an extra layer of pathos to the character that would have been helpful.  Now, the sequence when we do finally get that flashback, in the midst of a violent fight scene, is very powerful and one of my favorite moments in the film.  But as great as that moment is, I think the character and the film as a whole would have been better served by presenting the audience with that information much earlier in the film.  (It’s also possible that a better actor than Mr. Kitsch could have better sold that tragedy in his past by just his look and a few shots of the wedding band he still wears.)

By the way, that sequence also includes one of the film’s most head-scratching pieces of dialogue.  Before leaping into the fray, John tries to send Dejah Thoris on her way to safety, proclaiming “I was too late once.  I won’t be again.”  I loved that line in the trailers, and I assumed it was some reference to his having to go do something heroic but that he’d be back in time to stop Dejah Thoris’ marriage to the evil Sab Than.  But in the film, John says that line directly to Dejah, right before heading into the fray in a possibly suicidal attempt to allow her time to get to safety.  So how exactly was he not going to be late?  What does that mean?  I don’t understand.

Just as I have major problems with the film’s opening scenes, I also have problems with the end.  (SPOILERS ahead here, gang, so tread lightly.  I won’t discuss anything not known to readers of the book, but people who are unfamiliar with the story might want to skip this paragraph.)  Still with me?  OK, just as how I loved that the filmmakers’ preserved the film’s opening on Earth in Civil War times, I also loved that they kept the ending in which John Carter is tragically zapped back to Earth just after his moment of triumph on Barsoom, where he remains stranded for a long, lonely decade while searching for some way to get back to Dejah Thoris.  But while I was pleased that this twist was kept in the film, I was disappointed by how cursorily this was treated.  That segment of the film desperately needed another five minutes to really sell the heart-rending desperation and loneliness John Carter must have felt, having finally learned to live and love again, only to lose everything once more.  But despite the fact that we see, in the film, that John Carter was trapped on Earth for more than a decade, it hardly seems like a big deal at all to the character, and we quickly skip ahead ten years until he’s figured out a plan.  This should be the most emotional sequence in the film, and instead it’s treated as a tiny little speed-bump for the character that is quickly overcome.  It’s a let-down, to say the least.

It seems I have written far more paragraphs about what I didn’t like about the film than the parts that I DID like.  That’s probably because when films are good but not great, the things that keep the film from greatness tend to be really painful and frustrating.  That’s definitely the case here.

But, damn, we actually have a pretty great film-version of John Carter (of Mars)! This was a BIG BUDGET film, make no mistake.  (Hence all the articles about what a money-losing bomb it turned out to be.)  To my great delight, all of that money is right up there on the screen, giving us a wonderfully dynamic, immersive fantasy adventure.  I love the originality and inventiveness of John Carter. Disney’s marketing department might have been afraid of the material, but Andrew Stanton and his team clearly weren’t.  John Carter is a big, bold swing for the fences, and I wish there were far more big-studio films made with such fierce adventurousness.  It makes my heart sing to see a classic Sci-Fi property given this type of loving, caring, big-budget treatment.  I would have loved to have seen a sequel, which unfortunately we will almost surely never get.  For now, I’ll content myself with the fact that this one movie does, indeed, exist.  It’s not everything that I wish it was, but it’s far better than I expected and I’m certain it’s a film that I’ll find myself revisiting in the future.  Like John Carter, I long to return to Barsoom.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone