Despite what you may have heard, or may hear in the next few weeks, I’m here to tell you John Carter is awesome. Don’t let the poor trailers and horrendous marketing campaign fool you, this movie is better than anyone was expecting. It may not work for everyone, but if you like truly epic fantasy with a nice dose of good humor, and dare I say – FUN, you will love this movie.
By now you may know that John Carter is based on the 100 year-old-novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The title character (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who encounters an “alien” in the Arizona desert while searching for gold and soon finds himself on Barsoom, a.k.a Mars.
What follows is an epic high fantasy adventure, complete with a hero’s journey, evil machinations, and quite a cast of characters. Once on Barsoom, Carter finds himself in the company of the Tharks, a six-limbed green complexioned people led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and Tal Hajus (Thomas Hayden Church). Comparisons have been made between the design of these alien creatures and that of Jar Jar Binks from Phantom Menance. Please don’t let these comparisons sully your opinion. While the character of Tars Tarkas plays a similar role to that of Jar Jar Binks (tension release), his complexity is much greater and his personality much less grating on the senses.
Alien creatures may be prevalent on Barsoom, but what this film doesn’t have is a damsel in distress. Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the warrior princess of Mars, is one of my favorite characters in fantasy literature, and she is portrayed here by Collins as a smart, strong, and capable woman. Thoris was very misused in the trailers for this film (shown mainly as a scantily-clad love interest), and as a result John Carter may lose female viewers more interested in seeing strong female characters than Kitsch’s abs. Not to say our leading man isn’t nice to look at. Kitsch isn’t a household name yet, but he is the action star we may have been looking for. He certainly has more charisma in this film than Sam Worthington had in any moment in Avatar. The rest of the lead cast is solid as well, from Collins’ able princess down to the delightful appearance of Bryan Cranston leading the US Calvary.
While the overall story of John Carter may seem familiar, it is primarily because so many films from Star Wars to Avatar have been influenced by Burroughs’ rich universe. Credit goes to director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (he of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) for making the century-old story as vibrant as ever. While the geography of Barsoom does not lend itself to interesting visuals (spoiler: it’s basically desert), the characters are visually striking, and the designs are classic without feeling clichéd. The airships are novel, and each setting is distinctive enough so you are able to keep track of where you are. On a side note, how interesting to catch a glimpse of one man’s vision of Mars back at the turn of the 20th century!
Also filling out the world of Barsoom is the score by Michael Giacchino. I can already tell that it’s going to land on my end of year list, and while I already believe that Giacchino is one of the best “new” composers around, this may cement that in the minds of others. This score is different from many of his other compositions, and has some serious percussion work.
Overall, the action in the film is well-done, and I found the film’s pacing to be on par for the genre. The 3D is serviceable, but it lacks a certain finesse, so you may not want to shell out the dough for it. Instead, I’d put my money down for IMAX if possible; this film is pure spectacle made for the biggest of screens. In short, if your movie/book collection contains the likes of: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Dune, or Game of Thrones, then you should definitely give this high fantasy treat a shot.
John Carter opens today in Philly-area theaters.