John Carter Review
Disney takes us to Mars and delivers a head-butt or two along the way!
Written by Tarzan-boy, Edgar Rice Burroughs, way back in 1912, the phenomenal pulp heroic cliffhangers chronicling Civil War hero Captain John Carter’s adventures on the red planet, have been in the DNA of almost every SF or fantasy yarn that has come along since then. Superman, Conan, Flash Gordon, Planet of the Apes, Dune, Star Wars, Stargate and Avatar are the big hitters so colossally influenced by the concepts that Burroughs just hurled onto the page in colourful fever-dream momentum over a series of novels commencing with A Princess of Mars, which Andrew Stanton’s lavish new movie adapts in the more simply moniked John Carter, but the cultural infiltration of his vibrant imaginings has also permeated Star Trek, Doctor Who and He-Man, informed almost all the superheroes we know and love from the comics in one way or another, inspired artists and novelists for decades and even … since we’re on such a roll with this … provided the backbone to such classic Westerns as The Outlaw Josey Wales, A Man Called Horse and Dances With Wolves.
Now, I’m sure you’ll all agree – that’s some pedigree, folks.
And yet, this particular story and this character has singularly failed to make the leap from the book to big screen for the best part of a hundred years, despite a great many attempts being made to pump celluloid life into John Carter’s gravity invigorated veins. Even the poor old Ginger Jabba over at AICN spent years trying to develop the story for live action treatment … only to see the project slip through his fingers and finally, after being passed from pillar to post, land at the feet of Disney. Injecting over $250 million into the production and recruiting Stanton, the Pixar wunderkind behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E to helm his first live-action feature, the House of Mouse then seemed to drop the ball with a bizarre title change and a lousy marketing campaign that only die-hard fans of the story, net geeks and forum-baiters took any notice of. Advance word suggested that the film would go belly-up in the Martian sun and that, at best, it would be regarded as no better than 2010’s woeful Clash of the Titans remake (fingers crossed on this month’s Wrath, though!) and, at worst, be a critical and commercial flop on a par with Costner’s dreaded Waterworld. And the sheer volume of vitriol that I’ve had the misfortune of encountering about Stanton’s actually pretty faithful (in tone at least, though not strictly plot-wise) adaptation has been quite repellent and shameful, especially as the overwhelming majority of it fell from the venom-spitting lips of people who hadn’t actually seen the film.
Stanton co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon and, to be fair, it is a hodgepodge of origin and introduction, quick rebellion and even swifter character development, more like a whistle-stop tour to set the scene for later travails. Yet, in spite of lots of exposition, it succeeds in establishing the elements, conflicts and motivations that our displaced human catalyst sets in motion in this war-torn society. And it succeeds splendidly in providing pure escapist adventure, mystery and derring-do in a jaw-droppingly gorgeous environment.
The film has a cute wraparound device that sees to it that a young Rice Burroughs, Carter’s favourite nephew (played by Daryl Sabara) reads the mind-blowing exploits of the Captain’s first foray to Mars. This isn’t as clumsy as it sounds, and it perfectly encapsulates the style with which many a Burroughs, Vernian or Wellsian tale is constructed.
Former Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has suffered a terrible personal tragedy in the aftermath of the Civil War and has turned his back on society, choosing, instead, to pursue the dream and possible myth of finding a lost cave of gold. Now waging a war upon the Apache, the US Cavalry (rather bizarrely the Seventh, who didn’t actually fight them) find him down in Arizona and seem determined to pressgang the expert rider and soldier back into service to help them control the renegades. Carter has other ideas, however, and after a very amusing montage of escape attempts, finally breaks free and, with the Apaches hot on his tail and a wounded Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) in-tow, finds himself on the threshold of the very cave he’s been searching for. Unbeknownst to him, the cave is actually an ancient portal that allows transportation to other parts of the galaxy and, before he can even draw breath after vanquishing a strange attacker, a mystical amulet whisks the valiant hero-to-be off to Mars, or Barsoom, as it is called by those who reside there.
Once on the arid surface, he discovers that, thanks to the miracles of the Martian gravity and his denser bone-structure, he is much stronger than he was back on Earth … and that he can leap huge distances with Hulk-like momentum. His first sequence on Barsoom when he struggles to walk without thrusting himself into the air, is nicely played, although he does acclimatise to this ability rather too quickly afterwards. Almost immediately he is enslaved by the tribal race of tusked, green-skinned, four-armed Tharks, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Tarkas admires the physical abilities of this weird stranger even if he could just be a mutated White Ape as his tribe suspect, and strives to protect him and his own secret daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) from the more aggressive tendencies of his rival, the one-tusked pretender to the throne, Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church), and the sneering Judas of Sarkoja (Polly Walker).
But the Tharks are just the tip of the Martian sandberg. Two more races, both human-like, are locked in a deadly feud that threatens to destroy the planet. The Heliumites (who, thankfully don’t sound like Joe Pasquale) and the Zodangans, who, it turns out are being manipulated by the galactic spiritual harvesters, the Therns. You keeping up with all this? When civil war once again comes knocking at Carter’s door, he finds himself inadvertently involved – a predicament he doesn’t mind so much once he spots that unbelievably sexy Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and goes leaping (literally) to her rescue during a grand skyborne attack. Stuck in the middle of a conflict that he, and a large portion of the audience, doesn’t have a hope of properly understanding, it soon becomes clear that only an outsider such as himself will be able to make that crucial difference and avert the catastrophe that the weird Therns seem determined to wring about. Cue battles, treachery, honour and sacrifice … oh, and a little bit of “loving the alien” before John Carter of Earth can fully become John Carter of Mars.
A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play!
Admittedly, I had my doubts about Taylor Kitsch taking on such an epic leading-man challenge. He hardly stuck in the mind as Gambit in the dire X-Men Origins: Wolverine, did he? His apparently commendable performance in the TV comedy spin-off of Friday Night Lights has gone unseen by most people, and his placement in the simply awful looking Battleship, due to sink or swim this summer, does not bode well. But Kitsch is actually very good as the relocated soldier. Although nothing out of the ordinary for the typical action hero – he’s haunted by the past, initially reluctant to get involved in somebody else’s war, charismatically self-effacing and curiously well honed-and toned – he brings both a sense of fun and confidence to the role as well as a rough charisma, and even if none of this should be confused with genuine depth, it makes his John Carter a very likeable hero indeed. I like the way that he is hugely pallid and anaemic-looking. The temptation would have been to have Carter as tanned as those he encounters, but this native Virginian warrior would not have been as swarthy as the Lord of the Apes and his milky complexion serves as a nice contrast to the ochre landscape and the dusty, sunburned tones of all those around him. There is a horrible similarity to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Prince of Persia, with the long hair and freshly buffed physicality, but then Burroughs was clearly infatuated with the civilised man going native in extreme conditions and finding his true place there, and Kitsch does, indeed, look the part of the Barsoomian immigrant, if a touch less muscular.
The outsider is called upon to deliver a couple of rabble-rousing speeches, which he does pretty well, and he has a laidback quality that is perfectly in-tune with his ex-Johnny Reb. But what is definitely a bonus is the chemistry between Carter and Dejah Thoris. I had no trouble believing that he could fall for her and be keen to leave his earthly baggage behind. He’s been getting unfairly slagged-off, but I think he does the job admirably and I’d be keen to see him reprise the role.
But as much flesh as Kitsch unveils in his Tarzan-like slips of strategic leather, the screen positively melts whenever it tries to keep hold of his ultra-sexy co-star, Collins. Now, here is the best discovery of all. Portraying the Princess of Mars that Burroughs wrote about and that the celebrated Frank Frazetta so loin-stirringly captured with his fabulous artwork was going to be a tall order. There may be no shortage of uber-glamorous ladies in Tinseltown who could have slid their tongue around the barely utterable portents and the mumbo-jumbo of Barsoomian science, but they would also have to be able to fight convincingly and to make that cosmos-spanning bond with the human interloper sympathetic and, moreover, heartbreaking. And there aren’t too many who could do all this to the stratospheric standards that Lynn Collins is able to. There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve fallen in love with a space damsel. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella was one of the first toreally make space sexy, and several generations have become smitten with Princess Leia after a giant slug slurped her royal flesh. I still hanker after Erin Gray’s Col. Wilma Deering from TV’s Buck Rogers, and there are still many more that would have dropped a galactic wrench on their foot just so they could check themselves in to Sick Bay and gain the attentions of the Enterprise’s Nurse Chapel. Zoe Saldana was stunning as Uhura in the revamped Trek and even made being nine-foot tall, blue, and capped-off with a swishing tail a thing of purr-fection in Avatar. Even our own Caroline Munro set space-dials spinning as the bikini-clad smuggler Stellar Star in Starcrash. But there is no-one who comes close to swiping the space-crown from Dejah Thoris. Disney may have wimped-out on the full-on (or off) Frazetta costumes, but there is no disguising the fact that this princess has no problem coping with the Martian gravity. There’s not enough sticky tape in George Lucas’ universe to hold our Dejah down, that’s for sure.
Collins also appeared in Wolverine, but is possibly best know for TV’s vamp-taboo-pusher True Blood. It is Dejah Thoris, though, that will make her name. A former gymnast and a Black Belt in Karate, Collins brings an athletic appeal to her princess-cum-scientist, and even if she does wind-up getting snatched from the clutches of death by Kitsch, it is well worth remembering that Burroughs often placed his vixen in dire peril just for this very purpose, thereby creating much of the damsel-in-distress conventions that have plagued the genre ever since. But this girl is a fighter as well as a lover and I, for one, could watch her doing either, or both, for many more movies to come. And she can act, unlike Traci Lords in the apocryphal 2009 lame-ass attempt to sneak the story into a film, Princess of Mars, which was a disaster on every level.
Collins also spins one of those always hideous expositional voiceovers completely on its head. A very Dune-like speech is delivered face-to-camera and you can’t help but wince … but then Dejah breaks off and frowns, revealing that she is merely rehearsing an important communication intended for her father and the high council. It is great touches like this that remind you of Stanton’s animated in-jokery, and lighten the tone appreciably.
Home-grown talent heeds Arnie’s advice … and gets its collective ass to Mars!
But you cannot avoid camp with this sort of tale. Wacky costumes and cultures, smirk-inducing names, brain-bamboozling semantics and fantastical jargon and classical themes of war, love and destiny seem to cry out to thesps who just want to dress up in ancient regalia, get blinged-up to the eyeballs and spout meaningless but deadly important gobbledygook at one another. Thus, we have the amazingly busy Ciaran Hinds as Dejah’s daddy Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, James Purefoy, who is no stranger to robes or armour, himself, as Kantos Kan, and the ever-villainous Mark Strong as the galaxy manipulating Thern, Matai Shang. These guys strut about with Roman-esque attire and haircuts (well, not Strong, who reveals a gleaming dome not unlike the surface of a small planetoid) and contrive to utter lines of demeaning drivel with such conviction that you have to admire their clearly childlike love of simply being in a space opera. Hinds, of course, is here to lend some, ahem, gravity to the Shakespearean power-play – but he does look very silly with that grey-white barnet – but Purefoy, who has battled through Rome, made himself Ironclad and brought some semblance of class to the otherwise dreary tedium of Solomon Kane, is seeing his own heroism being wrestled from him. There was a time when he could have made the role of Carter his own, and although I always like to see him on the screen, part of me thinks that his royal hanger-on here is but a nail in his coffin. I like the knowing twinkle in his eye as Kantos as it reveals that Purefoy is having fun and gets the joke, but this does smack of a baton-change being made before he ever reached his full potential as a swashbuckling hero.
Yet whilst Strong merely gets to stand around like some conniving cosmic monk, whispering in the ears of each new cog in the wheels of his shady masterplan and shape-shifting like he has a genetic glitch, Dominic West goes all-out as the panto-villain duped into war-mongering and bride-taking. West is a brilliant actor and someone who knows when to switch to fun-mode. Just look at his hilarious turn as the anarchic Jigsaw in Punisher: War Zone (“It ain’t lookin’ too good for you, fatso!”) and his sleazy and salacious goading of Lena Headey in Zack Synder’s 300 (“Your inglorious and shabby self!”). Here, he looks bizarrely like Sean Pertwee and he makes for a very inconclusive bad guy. We know his strings are being pulled and we really aren’t too sure why we’re supposed to fear and hate him. We are told lots about his atrocities, yet we see very little of them. That said, he’s a colourful enough rogue, and I can’t deny that’s it’s a blast seeing him reduced to such a really rather inane, foot-stamping and sulky bad guy.
Much mayhem with Martian mo-cap.
With half the cast perched on stilts and pockmarked with motion-capture dots, the mighty Tharks teem like locusts in their sand-blown encampment and fill the provincial arena with howling, jeering blood-lust. When the bloated and savage White Apes bludgeon their way into the same arena, blind but sniffing out their diminutive prey, memories of the colourful but still bland Geonosian counterpart are easily jettisoned. This is far more feral and authentic – the CG here, as everywhere else beautifully blended with the live-action so that the film does not resemble a Lucas-like cartoon. Creatures moves with weight and substance. Whilst vehicles slide gracefully across the skies, or cartwheel under the unskilled guidance of a hot-wiring Carter, lumbering beasts of burden carry travellers across the vast open plains or charge into the fray with fearsome speed. The little Thark hatchlings betray a hint of hoky, unresolved definition when they first claw out of their eggs, but Carter’s loyal Martian mutt, Woola, is superbly well rendered. Snorting, sniffing, licking and slobbering like any Earthbound canine, this character easily runs the risk of making kids go gooey and grownups groan with despair. But Jar-Jar this thing ain’t. Cute as pie for much of the time, the creature has a Dash-like power to traverse the place at mind-warping speed, and a ferocity in battle that belies his innate pat-ability. You can imagine the media whipping up a storm back home if a toddler annoyed his new pet Woola!
As much as the kids may go “ooh” and “ahhh” when they clap eyes on the Tharks, these Barsoomian primitives are actually quite intimidating. Their warrior caste and unusual breeding practices may fly over the heads of younger viewers, but the film doesn’t flinch from showing their more aggressive tendencies. Poor Sola has been beaten and branded so many times – and we witness one such hot-iron scalding – that there is no more room left on her body for another scar, and one more misdemeanour will mean execution. And then there is a shot of them raining blows down upon the defenceless Woola, whose dog-like appearance and loveable charisma is something that many will have believed was purely there for the cuteness factor. I heard a couple of children gasping in shock during that moment.
The film is also quite violent, although no more so than any of the big historical adventures like Zulu or Kubrick’s Spartacus. Barsoomian blood is blue, so this effectively negates the liberal spurts of it that we see. There is a decapitation and a couple of head-butts delivered too … which I have to say were quite satisfying to witness. This sort of thing lends the film a more meaty and visceral approach that I hadn’t expected.
There has been some concern that the action plays a much lesser role in the film than anticipated. Well, to a degree, this is true. There are chases aplenty and sword-swinging skirmishes all over the show, but they can be far less protracted than many will be accustomed to. The big battle finale, especially, seems to be wrapped-up far quicker than you’d like. But this probably adheres to Stanton’s Pixar background. Although his animated films had scenes of tension and excitement, they would tend to keep actual set-piece action to short bursts. Personally, I think that he gets the balance about right here. The war-junkie in me would love to believe that a harder, more extended version of the movie is out there somewhere, but I am still very happy with how the chaos is depicted here.
The aerial combat between the elegant solar ships has a degree of frantic, sky-scorching finesse. Carter’s soaring Tigger impersonation is actually very cool, with him bouncing from winged corsair to burning platform to mountain like a spring-heeled Yoda on super-steroids. It’s the sort of thing that really shouldn’t work, and should perhaps induce giggles, but it’s actually a great punctuation of the action and a wonderfully superheroic way of saving the girl – which he does in such a fashion on several occasions.
And for the real fans, there is the pure standout moment when Captain Carter stands alone in the desert against a teeming horde of hundreds of blood-hungry Tharks. Those incredible Frazetta illustrations suddenly come to life as the Earthman leaps into the thick of them to buy time for his comrades and, Conan-style, slices ‘n’ dices his way to glory. In a heart-lurching touch Stanton intercuts this ferocious battle with poignant memories of how Carter returned from the Civil War to find his wife and daughter, lying entwined and dead in the burned-out remains of his home. This was a stunning way to reveal the tragedy that drove him on a selfish quest for bitter wealth, and the set-piece becomes an emotional and cathartic highpoint. The focus is on a rip-roaring adventure, but scenes such as this provide a wallop that elevates the movie considerably higher than that.
I was initially underwhelmed at the Utah locations standing in for Mars, if only because they weren’t red. Carter leaves behind a very similar looking Earth-bound desert to wake up in this Martian one, and the contrast is not profound enough. But the more we see of it, the more compelling and unusual it seems. Added CG mountains and a lovely, but freakish rock formation in the middle of a lake more than make up for this, removing the Earthly familiarity quite considerably. And the sight of a vast, walking city goes a long way to cementing the fact that we’re a long way from Kansas.
Do they play the bassoon on Barsoom? The music of John Carter.
With the likes of Star Wars, The Lord of The Rings and Avatar being bearers of some of the most amazing visuals and epic stories, massive scores were absolutely vital to find the heart of their respective journeys. And, as we have seen, with John Carter being so fundamentally familiar to us as those game-changers, it is much too easy to dismiss, as so many have done, the work of composer Michael Giacchino as being derivative of John Williams, Howard Shore and James Horner, but this is ridiculous. The score for John Carter is vast, richly textured, amazingly exciting and full of heart and beauty. It is big, bold and sweeping, and a constant delight. Bemoaners are citing that it is just a rip-off of Wiliams, but this score is hugely superior to anything that the once-great maestro has come up with in the last fifteen years or more, his Star Wars prequel efforts a lush-mush, his music for War Horse horribly predictable and totally unmoving, and only his work on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Minority Report offering anything new and interesting.
Michael Giacchino, on the other hand, goes from strength to strength. His work on John Carter is like a culmination of all the themes, musical invention, harmonic beauty and propulsive energy that he has delivered over the last few years. Detractors like to point out that he rarely carries a main recognisable theme, or that if there is one, it is usually brief and merely a foreshadowing tease of orchestral power, such as we heard in Star Trek. What these idiots don’t understand is that his main themes are usually broken-up and run as a steady undercurrent throughout his entire score, reappearing in ever-stronger iterations as the story progresses until gaining a full and dramatic reading. But the way that Giacchino works is like thunder and lightning in a bottle. He is an action specialist, and with John Carter he has created his magnum opus, a score of staggering energy and hyper-kinetic drive and rhythm. For a while now, fans have revelled in his customary percussive chase/pursuit style. His sense of dynamism is orchestral gold of the most adrenalized, the sort of thing that grips you by the scruff of the neck and takes you galloping. There were was the extraordinarily emotional verve of the final race in Speedracer (CD reviewed separately), his furious Bondian heroics in The Incredibles, the rat-escape from Ratatouille, his hell-for-leather Olympic sprint Ethan Hunt in M-I:3, Kirk and Spock going hit-and-run in Abrams’ Star Trek and now he reaches the zenith of this exciting trait with several set-pieces of such primal excitement and sheer balls-out zest that it is difficult to keep in your seat and not go running, jumping and battling alongside Captain Carter and Dejah Thoris. His track Sab Pursues the Princess is an absolute stunner – addictively action-packed and so energetic that you can imagine the orchestra came dressed in shorts and trainers and clutching isotonic sports drinks just to perform it.
But Giacchino does much more than create furious, pulse-pounding action. With John Carter, he has been given the opportunity to write for two separate worlds and a vast array of characters and cultures gain colour from his sense of the exotic. There is mystery, fun and suspense aplenty with Carter’s arrival on Barsoom and his gradual understanding of the magic and the conflicts that vie for supremacy there, but there is a love story at its heart, and the elegiac glory of personal redemption and selfless valour that swirls around it. He fashions a truly moving theme for both Carter and the princess that recalls the doomed heroism of Captain Kirk’s daddy, played by Chris Hemsworth, in the epic opening of Abrams’ Star Trek. His track, A Change of Heart is playing as I write, and it is magnificent. I will be taking a far more detailed look at his work for John Carter in its own review but, for now, if you need references, this terrific and unstoppable score blends the orchestral might of Star Wars with the primal percussive verve of Elfman’s Planet Of The Apes, the exotic sweep of Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia with the swagger of Barry’s Zulu and the sheer all-stops-out adventure of Goldsmith at his most ebullient. And yet it is all distinctively fresh and devoutly Giacchino!
I had an enormous amount of fun with Stanton’s John Carter, so much so that I saw it twice in one day, both in 2D and 3D, and can’t wait to see it again. I was horribly aware of the animosity towards the film, and the misguided and frankly deranged critique it was getting from some quarters, but I knew the source material and I have an unabiding devotion to fantasy and SF – and I certainly didn’t find the film wanting. It is a ripe, old fashioned adventure that has been bedecked with the most ravishing of CG, all integrated pretty much flawlessly and, get this, actually aiding the story without ever taking it over, a la Lucas. Kitsch, perhaps against the odds, makes for a very engaging hero, and Collins … well, Lynn Collins makes all the daft jargon not only palatable, but downright interesting (trust me, you’ll hang on her every word) and she ignites the screen in as shameless and unapologetic a celebration of heroic sexuality as Disney could ever allow at the rating. I wish planet was redder, and that we’d been able to journey to its more verdant and unusual environs and meet its more outlandish denizens, but these latter concerns are elements that I’m sure will be addressed if the stranger is permitted to explore deeper into this strange land in further films. I truly hope and pray that we are able to return to Barsoom for further tales of John Carter on Mars because as big, bold and as brash as this introduction to Burrough’s captivating world is, it just leaves you hungry for more.
Very enjoyable for all ages.
A note about the post-conversion 3D. John Carter looks hugely more impressive and a lot smoother than many other bolt-on 3D movies, but this still isn’t a film that actually needs the gimmick. Like Marvel’s Thor, there is very little added depth or “wow” moments that make the conversion worthwhile. Having seen both versions, I found that the 2D image looked much better and would certainly recommend it over its third-dimensional brother any day of the week. Either way, though, John Carter should be seen at the flicks
A rich, colourful and exciting combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Planet of the Apes, and very possibly everything in-between, Disney’s John Carter is sheer, unadulterated entertainment from start to finish. Of course it is camp and full of ridiculous dialogue, but what riotously imaginative space adventure isn’t? Aye, the uninformed may erroneously believe that Andrew Stanton is riffing on Star Wars and Avatar but that’s their problem, and they’re welcome to it. John Carter on Mars came first, by a long, long way, and fate has not been kind to its path to the big screen, teasing and torturing it every step of the way. There was even a distinct possibility that we may have actually set foot on the red planet, itself, before a fully authorised film version was ever made. But now that it is here, it is neither the masterpiece that fans had hoped for, and it is most definitely not the disaster that many had foretold. It is infinitely more enjoyable and less pretentious than Avatar and vastly superior to any of the SW prequels and I only make these comparisons because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing.
Stanton ably delivers the fabulous world that Burroughs created, makes Barsoom believable and even entrancing. He provides us with ravishing visuals (take a bow, Lynn Collins) and engaging characters (take another bow, Lynn Collins). And, above all, he fashions a rousingly old-fashioned adventure in spite of all the latest technology employed in its construction. Carter, himself, may seem like every other chiselled and reluctant haunted hero, but the film still allows his odyssey to feel remarkably fresh, genuinely exciting and happily fulfilling.
Personally, I wouldn’t bother with the 3D version but, whatever you do, go and see the genesis of practically all the heroic fantasy and SF that we’ve been enjoying ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs flung a man to Mars in 1912.
The cosmic Confederate has many more adventures ahead of him … please let us see them in as wildly enjoyable a fashion as this.
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