John Carter, 2012.
Directed by Andrew Stanton.
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, Thomas Haden Church, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston.
Former Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has abandoned civilization for life alone on the American frontier searching for gold. He’s confronted by a strange entity and is transported to Mars (Barsoom) where he’s caught up in the conflict between the warring nations of the planet. He has to decide whether to join the fight, or whether to try to get home.
John Carter is an outstanding achievement of literary adaptation. Andrew Stanton and company have produced a tightly scripted, rollicking sci-fi adventure that is must see on the big screen and, like me (in Homer-salivating voice), see it on IMAX! Stanton honours the source material and creates a richly textured aesthetic, but most importantly it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
John Carter originated in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-volume Barsoom series and the film’s release coincides with the centenary celebration of the character's origin in print. John Carter reaching the cinema screen fulfils the legacy of a swathe of creative forces who attempted to translate it to the big screen, such as Frank Miller (Sin City), John Favreau (Iron Man), Harry Knowles (AintItCool / Head Geek) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City / Desperado). The film adaptation is primarily taken from A Princess of Mars and looks to be the first of a potential trilogy of films. Its arrival has taken the substantial investment of Disney and the creative commitment of Andrew Stanton, who makes his live-action debut and whose work with Pixar (Finding Nemo and WALL-E) speaks volumes as to his selection to head such a massive undertaking loaded with expectation.
It’s been a good time for transitions from animated filmmaking to live-action as Brad Bird demonstrated so successfully with Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol. His fellow Pixar alumnus Stanton does not disappoint as he seamlessly integrates the CGI with his live-action players. The animations feel like they’re occupying the space of their real life counterparts. The Tharks (Tusked Giant Green Aliens) look fantastic and despite their obvious similarity to one another, they have unique muscle mass, heights, tusks etc. that are really impressive. There are some stunning set pieces of airships in battle and Carter, whose human body reacts differently in Mars atmosphere (he can leap tall buildings with a single bound etc.), bounding from the dusty surface hundreds of feet into the air to inject himself into the battle. And although for this kind of film to be successful, the CGI must integrate well, the character and production design seemed to have a distinctly modest style that complimented integration of real world elements. The opening scenes on Mars seem to be filmed in real locations and coloured and decorated differently to make them Mars-ish. You can literally feel Carter tumbling to the dusty surface as he tries to manage the different gravity.
I’m increasingly critical of the sci-fi / fantasy films that neglect to adequately introduce us to who we’re required to follow through these epic space operas. It seems that the worst of the ‘lackluster’ blockbuster trash fast-track their setup to get to the action which ultimately affects the quality of the overall film. The yard stick is obviously Star Wars and our introduction to protagonist Luke Skywalker. Although we don’t hear once that John Carter has to get some power converters from ‘Toshi Station’, there’s a good deal of attention paid to introducing Carter in the opening stanza of the film that really makes you love the character. Carter’s origins on the losing side of the war gives him a strong backstory that we’re slowly let into as the film progresses. He’s not easily defined or explained – he’s got a mysterious side that makes him very endearing. The scenes when he’s captured by Yankee Captain Powell (Cranston) not only had me and the audience around me laughing out loud but they told you a lot about his tenacious fighting spirit.
It’s clear from his previous outings that Stanton knows what it takes to create great stories and tell them visually, but his performance in his live-action directorial debut is contingent on the performances of the actors in the piece. The mo-cap performances from Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is fantastic; Mark Strong is measured as the menacing and manipulative Matai Shang; in the smallest amount of screen time Bryan Cranston endears himself to the audience; and Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris is quite good as the scientific warrior attempting to protect her Kingdom of Helium. Last, and certainly not least, Taylor Kitsch does a great job as the titular John Carter. He’s got a brutish charm that’s perfect to the often laconic Carter. There are some deep wounds in Carter that inform his character that Kitsch nails under Stanton. It bodes well that in all the talk of the film and potential sequels Kitsch has stated unequivocally that he won’t do another Carter without Stanton at the helm.
I must also give special mention to Mars Reptilian dog character Woola – who is as funny and charming as Dug the Dog from Up. Carter interacting with Woola results in some really fantastic and sweet scenes.
The weaknesses for me are some of the Shakespearean dialogue sequences in the halls of the soon-to-be-invaded Helium. They seem aloof and stilted compared to the otherwise organic interactions of the rest of the film. And to be honest, there are some fantastic characters like James Purefoy’s Kantos Kan who I desperately wanted to see more - only to find out in the wake of the screening that he would have a substantial role in upcoming sequels.
John Carter is for fans of pure, joyous, escapist, adventure cinema. Seeing John Carter unfamiliar with the tale, it’s very clear that the original text has influenced a hell of a lot of sci-fi flicks that we’ve seen before. This is worth your time, and your money and the mark up for 3D - in fact, go to IMAX 3D for full effect. Support what could be the beginning of a great new franchise in very good hands.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film *** / Movie *****
Blake Howard is a writer/site director/podcaster at the castleco-op.com. Follow him on Twitter here:@blakeisbatman.