Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John Carter (2012) – Review

Review: John Carter is a grand sci-fi epic, blustering with expansive action set pieces and brilliant visual effects. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s story A Princess of Mars, which influenced most of the great sci-fi adventures we all love (like Star Wars), it is about a Civil War veteran John Carter who lost everything during the war. He goes on an expedition to Arizona to find a cave of gold, so that he can be wealthy and thus subject to no man. While out in the desert, he finds the cave, but it is not what it appears to be and he is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is taken as a slave by an indigenous race. To escape and get back to Earth, he must once again become the hero he was in the war and aid a princess of Mars whose land is being ravished by its rivals. Writer-director Andrew Stanton approaches the film with a definite sense of scale, as every shot on Mars is panoramic. Vast landscapes, towering cities and beautifully shot aerial battles play host to most of the film’s backdrop. Stanton does a great job with the action, which is for the most part very engaging and does not feel tired (which is the case with a lot of action set pieces, as they just feel and look like they are doing what others films already have done). The narrative also is kept moving, which for an epic is quiet important (epically one targeted at families). An issue however rises in regards to the characters. John Carter is likable and does serve as a good protagonist, but it takes the narrative awhile to really establish this – plus the performance given for the role is gruff and uninviting. Stanton does use levity in the place of true connection however, which works well until the audience is ready to accept Carter. The other characters are not as developed (as I would have liked), but are given enough moments for the audience to recognize what motivates them (and connect with them). Sola, Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris – all of which are Carter’s closest companions and who the narrative focuses on – work character wise, but the film’s main villains Matai Shang, Tal Hajus and Sab Than are all fairly shallow and poorly developed. The audience is told they are the villains, and thus are accepted as such but their motivations beyond periphery characteristics (and genre stereotypes) are not established near enough. Thus, Carter’s trials are not as fulfilling and his battles against these villains are not as satisfying as they otherwise could be, and this is the primary flaw of the film (but a minor one at that). Stanton has instead structured the narrative as a man being reborn, with a subplot of romance, and thus it seems as his personal struggle against any one villain is secondary (which is why the villains are not as developed, plus the runtime is only 132 minutes, which is not long for an epic). The film is about how John Carter becomes John Carter of Mars (the hero of Mars), and to do this he must first come to terms with himself and his past. Visually, Stanton gets everything right and the film is impressive to behold, but there could have been a few more character moments. And, it is a shame that Disney had no idea how to market it, and thereby sunk the film’s opening weekend (and probably the chances of a sequel), as John Carter is a great sci-fi epic that is funny and filled with well-done action and adventure.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Andrew Stanton continues to do great work with John Carter (coming off Finding Nemo and WALL-E), and is the second Pixar alum to make the jump to live-action with success (following Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). I do hope Disney moves forward with Stanton writing and directing the sequel John Carter: The Gods of Mars, as it feels like he has a lot more to say with these characters. Michael Giacchino’s (one of my favorite film composers) score works well with the visuals, reinforcing the dramatic points (and sounding a lot like a John Williams’s score for a Steven Spielberg film – here is a sample). Daniel Mindel’s cinematography is top notch as he perfectly captures both the sci-fi and western aspect and visual cues of the narrative. And, Nathan Crowley’s production design really brings Mars to life. His sets/designs for the three main cities we are shown on Mars are all fantastic giving a sense to what each people is all about. The cast is good overall (some given more than others). On a personal note, it was great to see Rome veterans Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy together again (I loved their stuff as Mark Antony and Caesar on Rome). Mark Strong (to all our great surprise) and Dominic West play two of the main villains, but neither is really given much, especially West (who is given practically nothing and plays a shell). Bryan Cranston is good in a small role, and is part of one of best and funniest scenes in the film. Samantha Morton and Willem Dafoe do great voice work playing bigger character roles, with Dafoe stealing most of his scenes (he gives my favorite performance of the film). Lynn Collins is good in the film, but I think it is her eyes (I am guessing she wore blue contacts) that really capture your attention and pull you in, which works well as she plays the princess. Taylor Kitsch in his first big Hollywood role plays Carter a bit like his character on Friday Night Lights (Tim Riggins) – gruff, seemingly disassociated but with a big heart, and it works.

Summary & score: John Carter works well because it both meets and surpasses the sci-fi epic expectations and has good (not great) characters and performances. 7/10


  1. Despite occasional moments of silliness, the old-fashioned sense of adventure and brilliantly rendered aliens elevate this above other derivative big-budget sci-fi fare. I still wished that Kitsch did a lot better in this lead role but he was only there for eye-candy really. Good review.

  2. I still haven't seen it, but I'm thinking about going this week. I'm a sucker for giant monster battles.

  3. It is basically a live-action Pixar movie. I think you will like it.