FILM REVIEW: John Carter

Disney’s biggest gamble in years is to resurrect a hundred year old character and take him to Mars. Did it pay off?

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a number of books in the early 1900’s most noticeably Tarzan but he also wrote the Barsoom series of books that featured an original hero called John Carter. There were over ten books published in the series and this is the adaptation of the first book in the series which was originally called ‘A Princess of Mars’.

We start the movie with an aerial battle in the skies of Barsoom (Mars) between two humanlike races – the ruthless Zodangans(who dress in red) and the more peaceful Heliumites (who dress in blue). This is a civil war that has lasted for generations with both sides nearly at their end. The leader of Zodangans is the ruthless Sab Than (Dominic West) who is suddenly given a powerful weapon of mass destruction by the godlike Therns and their leader Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who promise Sab that if he does as he is told he will soon rule all of Barsoom. Caught in the middle of this is Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) a scientist and a warrior trying to help her father, the king of the Heliumites, find a way to win the war.

We then switch to Earth, Virginia where we meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) an ex-cavalry man in the American Civil war who sets in motion a series of events that ends with him being transported to Mars.

Once on Mars or Barsoom Carter learns that due to the different gravity he has enhanced strength and the ability to jump long distances. Not long after arriving he meets and befriends one of the green-skinned four armed Tharks called Tars Tarkas (voices by Willem Defoe). The story soon takes us on a roller coaster ride across the red planet and into war where Carter must prove himself and save the princess once and for all.

John Carter is a hundred years old this year and he’s never looked better. This is a real gem of a film that delivers on lots of levels. Disney was right to move ahead with this and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) was the perfect choice for directing this film which is his first live action movie. Stanton has done his homework because not only does he stay true to the original novel but he changes it for the better. The original books were very stand alone and if you are trying to start a franchise you need an overall arc and here the change was to bring the Therns from later books and create them as an antagonist for Carter. This was a brilliant move that actually improves on the book.

As the first big blockbuster of 2012 John Carter needed to impress and it did. The special effects look clean and crisp with the nine foot tall green-skinned Tharks being some of the best CGI creations I have seen in a while. You truly believed in them as characters as their thoughts and feelings were brought to life using a combination of CG and motion capture allowing the voice actors to be on set all the time in motion capture suits and on stilts.

The costumes are something to shout about as well having been designed with a sense of history around them. Even the Tharks have a Bedouin vibe to them that feels right in the deserts of Mars. In fact the settings also impress with a mixture of real locations mainly shot in Utah and CG landscapes. The mix was a visual feast that made Barsoom and very real place and its own character and a real sense of wonder.

John Carter was converted into 3D post production as they did not film it in 3D which normally does not produce great results (looking at you Clash of the Titans) but here you can see that they spent a lot of money on this. For me it was the best 3D movie I have seen to date, not just in the scenes but the movie overall had a real depth to it. This is by far a better advert for 3D than say Avatar was a few years ago but the technology has come along since then.

Of course full credit must go to the cast of the film with Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris) portraying a strong female role model that not only looks sexy but can think or fight her way out of any situation. Collins gives a warm, endearing and somewhat regal performance that captures the character perfectly. Mark Strong is his normal menacing self as the enigmatic Thern who has recognised Carter as his nemesis. I like Strong but would not want him to be pigeonholed into the strong silent type no matter how good he is at it. Dominic West plays the evil Sab Than but unfortunately he is the weakest one here and I normally love this guy. West seems to be just delivering his part by the numbers and I would love to have seen him give more than just a one-dimensional character. William Dafoe is the voice of Tar Tarkas and is no stranger to working behind the curtain, so to speak, as he was in Finding Nemo. Dafoe gives a great and fun performance here that is brought to life with his CGI self.  Taylor Kitsch as John Carter at first seems slightly wooden but then breaks into this deep strong emotional guy who is a loner coming to terms with a great loss. By the end of the film Kitsch is John Carter of Mars and I really look forward to seeing him visit the red planet again soon.

Of course no film can really come to life without a good score to enhance the story. In this case Michael Giacchino has outdone himself with this sweeping epic fantasy musical adventure. I have had mixed feelings of Giacchino’s work before but this time I truly loved the scope and wonder that comes across in his score.

John Carter is a great pulp action adventure story of the best kind that encapsulates what we used to love about going to the cinema and that is to see something that takes us to another world and makes us smile, cry and drop our mouths in amazement and wonder. John Carter delivers on all levels and planets.

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GS Rating 4/5
GS Reporter:
Montoya

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