Disney’s John Carter has had a lengthy and troubled life in trying to get to the big screen. With numerous directors making the attempt, it seemed that only a studio like PIXAR had the capability to turn Edgar Rice Burroughs complex work into film. The movie works far better than expected in presenting a grand and sweeping epic on par with the classic adventures stories of Indiana Jones. The acting isn’t always consistent and the film’s runtime tends to drag, but considering how people were calling this film DOA, John Carter is a marvel.
Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is transported to Mars or Barsoom as it’s called by its people. Once there he meets numerous warring clans including the aliens of the Thark tribe led by Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) and the Martian princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) who home of Helium is about to be taken over by the evil warlord Sab Than (Dominic West).
I was prepared for two hours of sci-fi boredom. The trailers didn’t do much to inspire my confidence and I haven’t enjoyed Taylor Kitsch in anything. Boy, did I have to eat a lot of crow after watching this movie. The film was on par with Indiana Jones in that I easily felt transported to another world. Sure we’re introduced to Carter’s nephew Ned (Daryl Sabara) but all the Earth stuff is easily cast aside once Carter is on Barsoom (Mars). The special effects and cinematography are gorgeous and the world that’s created at times looks like a desert wasteland and a beautiful Steampunk environment. Sure there are obvious racial connotations that can be made about the Tharks and the “Red Men” or human characters and they are pretty blatant at times. Especially considering the movie opens with the Confederates fighting the Apaches. Either way, the history and the scale of the movie pushed me to embracing the world far more than Avatar did. Director Andrew Stanton made outer space look great in Wall-E and here he just takes things to the next level. Every shot is beautiful! Composer Michael Giacchino also crafts an equally sweeping score, continuing his trend of creating dynamic and beautiful compositions for PIXAR’s productions.
Even when the cast isn’t consistent I still found myself enjoying them. To preface, the costumes are pretty distracting and depending on your gender will hinder your evaluation of the “acting.” Some of the costumes on Dejah especially are pretty risqué for a PG-13 film from Disney. Anyway, Kitsch was not nearly as awful as I expected. Sure he’s bland at times and doesn’t have any inflections in his voice but he’s a strong character and presents John Carter as a smart-ass. Lynn Collins is beautiful and dominant as Dejah. Actors who are pretty much all CGI including Dafoe and Samantha Morton also shine as the Tharks.
Some of the problems are generally associated with the length and how many stories are told. The movie is two hours and twelve minutes and at times it really feels it. The problem is there are so many stories. Not only do you follow Carter, but Dejah has a plot, there’s the Thark’s, the Tharn’s (the evil, immortal God-like men) and their relationship with Sab Than, the jumping between worlds, it’s all a bit much. I understand that Stanton wanted to do the book justice but for a first-time association with this world, it’s hard to juggle so many stories. I found myself confusing the Tharks and the Tharns a few times, and the Tharns aren’t given nearly the explanation behind their actions as needed. We’re told they are these evil entities that are assumed to be gods…but people are wrong and that’s all the explanation given. It also felt like maybe certain scenes were cut. Sab Than invades the Tharks army because apparently Dejah has run away. We only find that out when the opposing ship Than is following reveals Dejah falling out. It’s a confusing transition and the audience wonders, “Hey why are they here? Why is she on the other ship, did she leave?”
John Carter was a delightful surprise. Aside from a lengthy story, and some serious changes to the world of Mars (the jumping over chasms Carter does will make you beat your head if you know basic astronomy). Other than that it’s a strong Saturday-morning adventure epic worth seeing!