Is it a good enough movie experience to recommend buying a theater ticket? I’d say so.
Disney’s John Carter takes on the daunting task of trying to adapt sci-fi icon Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars, into a 3D modern blockbuster. Not an easy task for a family-friendly studio when the (much beloved) book in question is a mix of century-old sci-fi tropes, violence, skin-baring costumes and bizarre alien creatures. It’s even more of a challenge for director Andrew Stanton, who has (to this point) only helmed animated features like Finding Nemo and WALL•E. The stakes get even higher when you factor in the untested leading man (Taylor Kitsch) and lady (Lynn Collins), who are tasked with carrying the film.
With so much riding on it, does John Carter manage to deliver the blockbuster experience Disney hopes it will be? Is Stanton as effective working with live actors and blockbuster set pieces as he is with animation? And are the fresh-face leading couple able to carry this massive film?
In this version of the classic sci-fi tale, we are introduced to John Carter (Kitsch) in the 19th century Arizona territories, where the ex-confederate soldier turned loner-prospector has a run-in with some union army men that devolves into a skirmish with some local Apaches. Upon trying to find cover, Carter comes across a foreboding cave and a strange creature roaming inside of it. After a dangerous tussle and a flash of blue light form a mysterious amulet, Carter wakes up on the red planet of Mars (or “Barsoom” to the locals).
Due to the conditions of the red planet (something about human bone density and Mars gravity), Carter can jump really high and hit really hard. Those fancy abilities quickly attract the attention of the 8-foot-tall, four-armed, lime-green tribesmen known as the Tharks. One Thark named Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe) is less brutish than his brethren, and immediately recognizes Carter’s potential. So they tie him up and haul him back to their village.
From there, Carter (and the audience) learns all about the warring factions of Mars (the imperial Zodanga and the more peaceful Helium) – and somehow, in refusing to fight another civil war, our hero manages to walk right into the middle of said war… and the heart of Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Collins).
John Carter is better than its ill-conceived marketing campaign makes it look, often benefits from Andrew Stanton’s imagination and experience with animation, and is something of a breakout for its two leads (Kitsch and Collins). This doesn’t mean that the film is perfect, though. At all.
The story by award-winning writer Michael Chabon (Spider-Man 2) and Mark Andrews (Brave) mixes Burroughs’ vision of Mars with a classic Disney hero’s journey (complete with princess and animal sidekick). The film drags a bit in the middle (a notable misstep in a two and a half-hour movie), and although the central storyline is well constructed, the film does a somewhat poor job of nailing down the larger mythos of Barsoom and its people. Martians come and go – some look green, some look human – there are bits of Martian politics, religion and history thrown our way, but little of it sticks in mind beyond what applies directly to Carter and his quest. The score by Oscar-wining composer Michael Giacchino (Up) does the movie a HUGE favor, by making the proceedings sound more epic than they actually are.
While the heroes are well-drawn and engaging, the film’s villains – Zodanga warlord Sab Than (Dominic West) and his shadowy master, Matai Shang (Mark Strong) – are thin, uninteresting, and more odd than menacing. Thankfully, most of film focuses on Carter’s expedition across Mars, rather than his run-ins with these antagonists.
Scene for scene the film is generally well-crafted, and offers a sense of both fun and adventure most of the time. The best moments are when Stanton allows some of his animation spirit to seep through, creating humorous (if not idiosyncratic) sequences that have a definite cartoon-esque feel, in the best way possible. (An early quick-cut montage of Carter repeatedly trying to escape from Union custody is just one example.)
The sci-fi elements (alien creatures, technology, etc.) are well-adapted from the novels and are visually impressive – but some of the creatures may be a bit too bizarre or frightening for children (the White Apes). Despite the technical prowess on display, there is also still a bit of incongruence in the mix between live actors and digital characters; the 3D is immersive, but not at all necessary.
Taylor Kitsch is a surprisingly effective leading man, offering a mix of rogue charm (geek points if you get that pun), subtle emoting, and that “X factor” look and charisma that denotes a star. Lynn Collins has managed to be something of a chameleon during her long career, but there is no overlooking her as Deja Thoris – what with her chiseled beauty, impeccable tan, solid acting chops and some sword skills that will make fanboys swoon.
Willem Dafoe proves he’s just as skilled at motion-capture performance as he is live acting, but many of the other big names in supporting roles – Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, Polly Walker (all alumni of HBO’s Rome), Thomas Hayden-Church, Dominic West, Mark Strong and Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston – are woefully underutilized, given their skill level (if you even recognize some of them under all the digital effects or makeup).
Disney no doubt hopes that John Carter will be the beginning of a successful franchise (Burroughs wrote 11 volumes in his “Barsoom” series, so there’s a lot of material to work from). As such, the film ends in a kind of lackluster way that tries to offer some twists and surprises, but really just leaves a lot of of the bigger plot threads dangling.
Is John Carter as good as one would expect a movie in production for over two years – and a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars – to be? Not really. Is it a good enough movie experience to recommend buying a theater ticket? I’d say so (though you can probably do without the 3D upgrade). Is the film good enough to warrant future installments? Well, now that the studio and the filmmakers have their feet firmly planted in red sands, I suspect a second visit to Barsoom would be smoother and more enjoyable than the first.
John Carter is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters everywhere. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
If you want to discuss the movie without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet, please head over to our John Carter Spoilers Discussion.