“When I saw you, I believed it was a sign… that something new can come into this world. “
In a world where every space science-fiction movie seems to be inspired by either Star Wars or Star Trek, it is interesting to see a film that is not only cut from a different cloth, but interestingly enough inspired the former films mentioned. The Barsoom series(John Carter book series) is not a household brand, but is actually a historically influential piece of sci-fi literature written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) in the early 20th century. The series has had a huge impact on not only science fiction, but also films in general as both George Lucas and James Cameron have both stated that the stories of John Carter had a significant influence on both Star Wars and Avatar respectively. These movies have not only changed(for better or worse) the way that movies are conceptualized, made, and sold in the last 40 years, but they have also inspired multiple generations of film makers and film goers. Why does this little history lesson matter? It’s important because John Carter has the unique opportunity(or challenge) to both see how well it holds up after being written 100 years ago and also an opportunity to see how much or how little its spiritual successors have surpassed it. Another thing to consider about this film is that it is being made by Disney, a company that has generally shied away from live action science fiction. Can the house of mouse pull off this classic sci-fi epic or should John Carter stay simply an influence and inspiration?
John Carter begins with Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burrooughs(poke, poke) receiving news of his uncle’s death. Not long after Edgar arrives to Carter’s estate to receive his inheritance, he begins reading Carter’s journals which chronicle his tale to Mars. The movie then shifts to Carter’s(Taylor Kitsch) perspective as a washed up confederate civil war vet living in Arizona looking for gold. Carter eventually has a little bit of a run in with some Native Americans, and while running away from them stumbles upon a cave. Carter explores this cave and discovers a medallion that transports him to Mars after he touches it. Immediately after waking up Carter realizes that he can no longer walk or jump normally as his sense of gravity has changed. Not long after he arrives Carter is taken by a group of green four-armed aliens called Thark. The Thark are amused by his ability to jump, and they very quickly adopt him into their many times violent tribe. After living with the tribe of Thark for a few days, Carter rescues a princess named Dejah Thoris(Lynn Collins) from flying spacecraft that is going down after an attack. We soon see that that Dejah was running away from her kingdom because she was about to be married of to a power hungry conqueror named Sab Than(Dominic West) who has already conquered most of the planet. If she marries him it will mean that Mars(which the locals call Barsoom) will be under his complete rule. Carter helps her escape from Sab Than in hopes that he can find a way back to his home. From this point the movie takes off with John Carter fighting all sorts of creatures while trying to save both Barsoom from a group of watcher-like creatures called Thern who are lead by Matai Shang(Mark Strong) and Dejah Thoris.
The story of John Carter certainly sets an interesting premise, but does the film live up to it? The answer to that question is certainly yes in most areas. While the film doesn’t exactly have the best writing ever, it does manage to stay entertaining throughout the film while sometimes even being surprisingly touching. This sci-fi epic is certainly more about showing John Carter kill aliens and rescuing the princess, but underneath this layer of superficial story telling there does lie some real substance. There is one scene in particular that comes to mind when I think about this substance, and its a scene in which we see what truly drives John Carter through his lost and seemingly hopeless journey. There is a scene in which Carter attempts to take on an army of Tharks with nothing but his alien dog companion Woola(who is freaking awesome) at his side. This epic battle is intercut with the tragic story of Carter’s past, and this scene certainly held a level of depth that I was not expecting to see in this film. Aside from this the best thing I can say is solid. I understand that this story is now a century old and so I’m completely fine with the rescue the planet and the princess story that this film presents. The movie executes this story in a mostly successful manner that definitely kept me engaged and entertained. The biggest flaw that I believe the story in this film ran into was some final act pacing problems(which is becoming more an more common). The first two acts of the film seem to have a really good beat to the pacing that allow for the characters to develop as much as they need to and the tale of epic proportions to build up to an epic finale. Unfortunately the third act does not live up to the build up of the first two movements of the film as the pacing picks up significantly. In some movies this increased speed might work, but this is a space epic that has the possibilities of Star Wars and the scope of Lord of the Rings. This movie earned a long run time, but unfortunately the ending is rushed. Very rushed. The epic fight is almost a joke as it only lasts for a few minutes. The worst part about this is that the movie actually could have been really long and still been entertaining and properly paced, but in a world where tension spans are growing shorter, apparently the studios thought the film should be trimmed. As a whole the story is entertaining and even heartwarming in certain moments, but in the end not as good as it could have been.
There’s not a ton to say about the character work done in the film other than that most of the characters are caricatured to at least to some extent. John Carter is the typical washed up man of conviction who is trying to redeem himself before returning home, the princess may be stronger than most, but is still just a damsel in distress, and the villain(at least one of them) is the typical evil conqueror who wants to princess as well as the nation she represents. None of the leads are new, but I will say that I found some of the supporting characters, particularly Mark Strong’s Matai Shang and Willem Dafoe‘s Tars Tarkas to be intriguing. These characters seemed a little more unique to this film than the leads with their different motives and ideals separating them from most caricatures. The space dog Wolla is surprisingly charming as Carter’s hilarious and useful companion. I will say that these characters are well portrayed and written even if they are a bit caricatured. Taylor Kitsch does a solid job in his first real lead by bringing just enough dynamic to the Carter while Lynn Collins pulls off the lead lady equally as well. Personally I found Dominic West’s villain to be one of the more entertaining characters to watch even if he was essentially a puppet brute to the real masterminds. There weren’t really any performances that were particularly exceptional, but there wasn’t really any bad acting to speak of.
The thing this movie gets right more than anything is its excellent direction by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton(Finding Nemo, Wall-e) who brings in his technical expertise as well as ability to tell meaningful stories to John Carter as his first live action film. Stanton really brings his A-game in this film as the movie has a gorgeous art direction and some really top notch CGI. The movie takes on a very space-western fantasy feel based on the character designs, look of Mars, and even the dialog choices. The cinematography is pretty solid as it shows off the setting while still staying personal enough to Carter’s point of view. Stanton certainly leaves his stamp all over this movie as it manages to have the charm of a Pixar movie while still having having the epic feel of a space western fantasy. While this is certainly not Stanton’s best film, it is a great starter for his live action career.
Overall I will say that John Carter is certainly an entertaining film and at times did manage to convince me that it was even more than that. The film has some pretty sad Act III pacing problems and some pretty caricatured characters that keep the film from becoming all that it could be, but the movie still succeeds at being a good time because of its great direction, high production value, very well choreographed fight scenes. While the movie is certainly not a truly great film or even one that will leave much of an impact, I can say that it was visually pretty, fun, and well done.
The story of the film is one we’ve seen done a few times by this point. John Carter luckily manages to blend elements of a space western fantasy into the classic tale from the source material to make the story its own. The biggest weakness with John Carter’s influential story is that it has already been done before and done better in some cases than this movie can manage. The story also runs into some really nasty Act III pacing issues as the movie shoves at least an hour or more of story into about 25-30 minutes of film time. This movie could have and should have been longer. Despite these complaints the story remains engaging and entertaining.
The characters in this movie are fairly caricatured, but well done and interpreted which keeps them from feeling entirely stale. While John Carter himself may be the typical washed up man of conviction, the movie really does manage to let you feel for him under the surface level because of a really well done scene that reveals what drives his character on a very realistic level. Aside from Carter we get very little development for the other characters and they essentially fill their roles. Luckily the cast is strong which allows for these characters to still feel fresh. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Mark Strong as Matai Shang were especially interesting.
Andrew Stanton does a terrific job in his live action film debut by delivering a visually striking and visually exciting movie. He manages to bring Pixar’s charm and sense of imagination to this new and unexplored landscape. Cinematography, art direction, and visual effects all fit the bill for this tale of epic proportions. Stanton certainly has a bright future ahead of him.
Overall Effectiveness of the Film: 7.0
The movie is supposed to be a sci-fi space epic that takes place on the world of Mars. While the movie certainly hits some bumps along the way, it still manages to be a very fun and exciting piece of entertainment. While it certainly never reaches the level of other great epics like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Avatar, it does manage to be engaging and full of life. Sadly because of some pacing problems(which I suspect is related to studio intervention) and lack of more interesting characters the film never really manages to live up to its full potential. As it is, it gets a pass as great entertainment, but the question that audiences as well as Disney should be asking is “can it be more than mere entertainment?”
Overall Score: 7.0