Go see John Carter.
Why? Because it’s a much better film than any of the critics would have you believe. Because it’s a huge epic film based on the story that inspired a hundred years of swashbuckling science fiction. Because it’s the first live-action movie by Oscar-winner Andrew Stanton.
And because it’s fun.
JPH: Mr. Harvey and I have both seen it, and herein lies our collective thoughts on the movie. For those of you who only think John Carter was a character in the NBC show “ER”, then here’s a primer for you to read first and then come back here.
Walt Disney Pictures, for whatever reasons there may be, has failed to figure out this picture. The marketing shows this in stark relief, and blame can be spread around to a number of folks. But ultimately, Disney doesn’t know what they have in their hands, and that failing may ultimately spell the demise of the sequels.
It’s a lesson in Marketing 101 – Know Your Product. John Carter is a 1930s Republic serial with 21st century CG effects. On the one hand, I find it really hard to believe that Stanton would make such a huge misstep in the marketing decisions that have been laid at his feet. The movie itself shows that he has a very clear understanding of this story and the world John Carter inhabits. For Stanton to market this movie so horribly just feels… somewhat off.
Given the stories swirling around this picture, I’m more inclined to believe that the Disney execs who inherited John Carter actually want it to fail. Hollywood politics being what they are, this kind of thing happens all the time. New executives don’t want former executives to get credit for any kind of success that happens after they’re gone. Very likely, the current regime saw this movie as something to get past as quickly as possible.
TH: Well, I think there’s probably enough blame to go around, as Stanton has given us plenty of his own words on the subject, but whoever ultimately will fall on their sword here, the simple fact is this: Mistakes were made that pretty much made potential audiences ask “Why do I want to see this?”, and as far as the marketing went, the answer was “Um…”
Not to say I don’t love the Peter Gabriel song they used in the first trailer, but for an action film based on the pulps, well, not the most logical of choices. The mood didn’t exactly imply swashbuckling alien adventures. Most damaging, in my opinion, was the title itself… let’s face it, John Carter doesn’t say much. John Carter of Mars, well, that says a lot, and if those behind the advertising had only kept it… but such was not to be.
JPH: The pre-release press coverage didn’t help, either. Focused on the troubles of the film, focused on Stanton’s background in animation and the assumption that he was in over his head with live-action (the reshoots being a big indicator of that for them), the critics were quick to jump on the “John Carter is broken” meme, which completely ignores the fact that it’s the number one movie all over the world – except in the US.
Which is why it’s incumbent upon us to cut through that clutter like a Confederate soldier cutting through a white ape.
Author Max Allan Collins had this to say about the movie on his blog:
We encounter strange, fully delineated creatures and cultures, sometimes humorous, other times horrific, in this heartfelt piece of filmmaking. Epic and intimate, JOHN CARTER is faithful to its influential source material, and despite what you’ve heard, not at all hard to follow…
And this is just one of many places where movie-goers are reacting very positively:
Now, then, we will venture forth into the reasons why the Disney film John Carter is worth placing your collective posteriors in the plush cushioned seats at your local cineplex instead of waiting for it to come to home video.
1. The Story
JPH: As we’ve discussed before, the movie is based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who created Tarzan. In this introduction to Captain Carter, we meet the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium, a major city on the planet Barsoom. This is the red planet we know as Mars.
Carter’s adventures take him from being a prisoner of the Tharks, to hero of the planet saving the damsel in distress – who is quite capable of wielding a sword of her own. It’s pulp fiction from the heyday of pulps. Ultimately, it’s a swash-buckling romance.
A Princess of Mars first appeared in serial form in 1912 under the title “Under the Moons of Mars” and gave us John Carter, a character that would influence Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, and countless others.
Andrew Stanton and his team of writers have served up a pretty faithful adaptation of Burroughs’ work, with the addition of the Therns from later books serving as the connecting thread into the planned sequels. The creative liberties are minimal, which is why this movie works on several levels. Instead of modernizing the story, instead of looking at the scientific fact of the 21st century, the film maintains the integrity of the original Barsoom novels – with aliens and white apes and a breathable atmosphere and flying craft on Mars.
TH: Of course for the purists out there, one must point out some changes will be noticeable to those who have read and loved the books. The good news is that they are clearly there to smooth out the story and prepare for continuing the story in later films. Remember that Burroughs wrote A Princess Of Mars to be serialized, and it’s very episodic. That works fine on the page, but on the screen, you need a storyline that flows.
With Michael Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) and Mark Andrews, Stanton has written a script that brings us into the world of Barsoom, gives the characters the depth they need for us to care about them, and tells a gripping tale. Are some characters from later books brought into this film? Sure. Are some characters and events from the book cut out or combined? Of course. That always happens when adapting a book into a film. But is the essence there, is the love of the original material and the respect to adapt it there? Yes it is.
2. The Synthetics
JPH: The CG animation is very well-done, and through most of the picture, it’s easy to forget these characters are made of pixels. There’s real emotion in the performances, which should be credited not only to the actors in the roles, but also the animators creating the look of the characters.
The Thark babies needed a little more render time, but other than that, I was very impressed with the animation work. And the matte painting work was done in the finest tradition of Ralph McQuarrie and his contemporaries back in the day when artists were actually making matte paintings.
Most of us who have read the Barsoom books, have an idea of how it should look. This movie takes that and runs with it, giving us a great Martian landscape to serve as the canvas for the story of a Confederate soldier and his princess.
TH: Special note should be made of the production design as well, because the Barsoomian technology and architecture is wonderfully alien and beautiful, and the CG is beautiful. Whether it’s the flying ships or the Thark settlement, the walking city of Zodanga or the towers of Helium, real thought has gone into making a unique world here, one that actually looks lived in.
Too often CG environments look too clean (I’m looking at you and the prequels, Mr. Lucas), and let’s face it, when you create a world, practical sets can be really hard to pull off beyond a certain point. Not so here. Obviously practical sets were built, but the CG expanding of those sets is flawless, and again, they built a world, one you can believe the characters live in.
3. The Scenery
JPH: John Carter takes Utah and New Mexico and turns them into the Red Planet in such a strikingly beautiful way, incorporating the flatlands and terrain that should be familiar territory and translating it into a world we’ve never seen before. This is the Mars of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
And let’s not forget Lynn Collins. She’s a stunning Dejah Thoris, with her dark complexion and ice blue eyes, made all the more enticing by the wardrobe. It’s a Cecil B. deMille production. Stanton clearly has studied the classics and the pulps to evoke a sense of nostalgic storytelling.
4. The Stunts
JPH: Carter was the first Superman. With his leaps and bounds, he had abilities beyond those of mortal men long before Kal-El was sent to Earth. I wonder if Siegel & Shuster read Burroughs…
The sword-play is choreographed and executed well, especially considering some of these swordsmen are dealing with extra limbs. I never noticed any chocky-blocky effects that failed to blend in with the in-camera live-action material.
And yes, the Wilhelm Scream is in there.
TH: But of course, why shouldn’t it be?
It’s pretty much all here folks: Fleeing cavalry and Apaches on horseback, daring sword fights with dozens of combatants, even a scene where Carter alone faces hundreds of Tharks in what should be a suicidal last stand. And most important? It’s shot in such a way that you can tell what’s going on. Too often, while trying to get across the chaos of battle, filmmakers will bring us so close to the action that it all becomes a blur. Here Stanton often pulls back, giving a sense of scale and an odd grandeur to the battle scenes, and the film benefits from it. It’s clearly something that he brings over from the animation world, and when dealing with this kind of story, it’s certainly the right choice.
JPH: From the moment he first appears, Woola is a real animal. I watched this Martian equivalent of a dog, and I swear the animators reviewed tape of my old fat beagle Peaches.
This is a fully realized animal, with emotions and reactions to the stuff going on around him. Not a fuzzy Fraggle or Jar-Jar or something out of Syfy Saturday Night Movies. Woola is in the space (OK, I know he’s not in the space). His movement and mannerisms work. They just work.
6. The Performances
TH: Yes, we let Woola go first, but make no mistake, it’s the performances that make or break a film like this. All the spectacle in the world, all the CGI money can buy will fall flat if you don’t believe in the characters.
Taylor Kitsch is our titular hero, and convincingly gives us a man who is tired of war and the cost it brings, thrust into a world where everyone wants him to take up arms again. You may know him from “Friday Night Lights”, or this may be the first time you’ve seen him, but casting him was an excellent choice. John Carter has to be a man who almost reluctantly becomes a hero, and Kitsch takes us on that journey the right way. From his southern mannerisms and bitter memories of his loss, to his eventual embrace of his new world, here is a John Carter both recognizable to the reader and new and alive for the film audience.
As Jason said, Lynn Collins is stunning as Dejah Thoris, but make no mistake, this Princess of Mars is not just a pretty face. A teacher, a scientist and a woman who wields a sword as well as any man, Dejah is far from just a damsel in distress. Here is a strong-willed female character that cheerfully defies the standard clichés of the Sword and Science genres, and if you want more strong roles for women in science fiction, well, let me introduce you to Miss Collins. In many ways her performance anchors the film, and she is wonderful to watch. Collins has expressed an interest in playing Wonder Woman, and based on this? I say we let her.
Willem Defoe. Samantha Morton. Thomas Haden Church. You won’t see their faces in John Carter, but their voices bring Tars Tarkas, Sola and Tal Hajus to life beneath the impressive animation. The voice casting is wonderful here, with all three of these critical characters played by wonderful actors whose voices, while recognizable, are not so distinctive as to distract. Defoe’s Tars Tarkas is especially good, and for a character that would be easy to make all too much the warrior cliché, he gives a depth and humor that really works.
Then there’s our villains. First we have Dominic West as Sab Than, whose dreams of conquest and pursuit of Dejah Thoris will being him into the path of a certain Earthman. West does extremely well with what he has here, both viscous and dryly funny. The only downside is that if anything, his Than is a touch underwritten, and you want to see more from him.
And if there is a reason for Than being a little light, it’s because he’s in the shadow of Mark Strong’s Matai Shang, leader of the Holy Therns. Strong has made a career of playing the villain of late, and you probably know him from Sherlock Holmes or Green Lantern. Here he certainly brings that dry delivery and sardonic charm to the front of his Shang, a mysterious priest of an order with a larger agenda than first appears.
Appearances from Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston and others give the secondary characters strong life, and if you listen closely, you might catch the voice work of David Schwimmer and Jon Favreau. Hinds plays Thoris’ father, the leader of Helium, and brings the necessary weight and gravitas to the part, although I would have liked more of him and Purefoy’s Kantos Kan. It’s always good to have characters aside from your main ones that are interesting, and one would think we’d see more of them in any future films.
But lest you think we are blinded by our own love of the material and the adaptation, there are a few areas where the film does have some issues. On balance, they pale next to what the film does right, but still, they’re there. As stated above, Dominic West’s Sab Than gets less time than he probably should as one of the two main villains, and while Strong’s Matai Shang is interesting and mysterious, the mystery of the character, clearly meant to be expanded on in later films, may leave some viewers with more questions than they like.
JPH: I like that we start off in a Western with Cranston playing a George Custer type. It’s very reminiscent of Dances With Wolves or The Searchers in its style, and Cranston brings just the right mix of sage experience and war-weariness to the role.
TH: One of the criticisms a lot of reviewers have had is the amount of story this film covers, and for some it’s too much. Yes, there is a LOT of information here, about a world that is quite unfamiliar, but it’s there for a reason, and the filmmakers are trusting their audience to follow along. That’s something I wish more of them did, and if you let yourself be immersed in the world of John Carter of Mars, I think you’ll find that it’s easier going than it first appears. There are a few pacing issues, but John Carter follows the Ten Minute Rule for the most part, and even when the film slows down, it remains interesting.
JPH: For those who do not know the Ten Minute Rule – first, shame on you. The Ten Minute Rule is story structure left over from the days of the old serials of early Hollywood. Each chapter in something like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers was about ten minutes long, ending in a cliffhanger for next week. So every ten minutes you have a beginning, middle and end story arc. This format is followed by the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, along with Tintin and others that were influenced by the Republic and Universal serials.
TH: Another criticism is that “We’ve seen it all before.” Well, yes and no. Yes, film after film that owes debt to the writing of Burroughs, acknowledged or not, has had scenes much like those you see here. It is something of familiar ground, even if it comes from something that actually came long before. But the style and the character of the film are engaging and fun, and even if the story isn’t groundbreaking, it’s done with respect for the source material and the audience.
I liked this movie. I do know the source material, and I wondered how they would make it live and breathe, and I was prepared to be a far harsher critic of this film. I am very happy I didn’t have to be, because for a couple of hours I got to be a kid again, reveling in the world of Barsoom, fighting alongside Tars Tarkas, racing to save Dejah Thoris from the clutches of an evil warlord. I don’t get to do that much these days.
JPH: It’s a Western. It’s Lawrence of Arabia for the pulps. It’s a fun epic that many people are going to miss because they listen to critics.
Go see John Carter.