Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
Directed by Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) and released by Disney, I became quite excited to see this film upon seeing the trailers, but I faltered when it was received poorly by critics and didn’t do well at the box office. Recently, however, I read Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (my review), which talks about why the film failed the way it did, getting me re-interested in John Carter and leading me to read author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original book, A Princess of Mars (my review). All the while, I became more and more excited to see the film despite its negative reception – I wanted to see this world come to life! – and, now that I’ve seen it…what’s wrong with everyone? What is there to dislike about this film?
Here is Disney’s official plot synopsis:
The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
For the first half hour or so of the film, I was pretty skeptical. A confusing, not-from-the-book opening scene raises many questions right off the bat, and the first few minutes of the actual film are not much better. I began writing out a mental list of complaints, but I shoved that aside the farther I got into the film. Does it have its problems? Well, yeah, but every movie does. Does it deserve all of the negativity that it has received? Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Stanton takes plenty of liberties with Burroughs’ world and characters, but, looking back, I understand the reasoning behind every single one of them. While the John Carter of A Princess of Mars is a good guy just because he is a good guy and there’s no questioning it (it works great in the book), the John Carter of the film has issues; he’s stubborn, he’s selfish, and even disrespectful at times. However, all of this builds and builds to give Carter the opportunity to be the good guy, bringing a character arc that is needed for film. It is a pleasure to watch Taylor Kitsch as John Carter of Earth discover the part of him that is actually John Carter of Mars, willing to fight and die for the good beings of Barsoom. The Dejah Thoris of the book is not a warrior, nor is she a scientist, but she is both in the film, giving her a more active role in the story and letting her be more than just the romantic damsel in distress (which, again, worked really well in the book). Lynn Collins plays the character with an appropriate amount of spirit and energy, capturing both the romantic side of the character that would be required of a Princess of Mars, but she also brings the new feisty side of the character necessitated by the script. The addition of the mysterious Therns to the film is a bit confusing at first, and certain story elements and characters are removed, but all of it comes out okay, working for the film’s good.
The scope of the film is just as large as that of the book, with the choice of filming in real locations rather than using a green screen being something that I think humanizes it a bit, making it more accessible to the viewers. Sure, the original story is meant to be “out there,” but it’s more the characters who inhabit the world and how they interact with each other that create the scope of the story, not the world itself. That being said, the visuals in the film are fantastic, from the look of the Tharks to the design of the airships to the wide expanses of desert mountains. Composer Michael Giacchino’s score to the film is appropriately reminiscent of John Williams’ original score to Star Wars without being a copy, and you can even hear a bit of his score to Star Trek (my review) every now and again, though I’m not holding that against him by any means. Giacchino keeps a perfect balance between bringing out the largeness and epicness of the adventure and capturing the intimate moments between characters, and his main theme is one of my favorites by him.
There are certainly aspects from the book that I think would have worked well for the film, namely the story being told from Carter’s perspective or the more episodic style of storytelling, but the absence of these elements didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film. In fact, the absence of these and other characters or story elements seen in the book helped to set the film apart as its own entity to be enjoyed. The important thing about this film is that it captures the heart of the source material without photocopying it from page to screen, and it does it in a way that is incredibly fun; the last half of the film, especially the few minutes just before the credits roll, are definitely my favorites. I should also mention that I liked Kitsch and Collins in the lead roles, but I also really liked Tars Tarkas as played by Willem Dafoe; he plays the character with a resolve that fits a character of his authority, but the compassionate side of the character also rings through, making him one of the best characters of the film. John Carter is not a perfect piece of cinema, but it’s good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best, with plenty of good humor, great action scenes, incredible special effects, and likable characters…and it’s certainly not deserving of all the negative criticism heaped upon it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance! I beg you!
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action
P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Michael Giacchino, here!