by Michael D. Sellers: Star Wars, Avatar, and John Carter. That’s the cinema progression although by now everyone knows that the 100 year old John Carter books by Edgar Rice Burroughs came first and inspired both Lucas and Cameron. Let’s get a few confessions out of the way: First, I’m a devotee of the books. I read them all as a kid and John Carter of Mars is a precious thing to me, something I’ve waited to see on the screen for more decades than I care to count. This means I’m predisposed to want to like this film and I’m hoping for the best; but it also means I will be demanding of the film-makers because I know how extraordinary it ought to be. Secondly, as someone who’s mind was populated by Burroughs’ original vision of Barsoom, I never quite got on the imitators’ bandwagon: Star Wars always felt bland and a mere shadow of the “real deal”, and even Avatar’s Pandora came up lacking in comparison to the rich and unforgettable Barsoom that I had been carrying around in my mind since adolescence.
So what has Andrew Stanton given us?
My consider answer after viewing the film and digesting it for two days: He has given us a gem that shines bright and true with a light all its own. Stanton has taken the grandmaster’s story but he’s made it his own and it’s fresh and emotionally stirring in ways that are unexpected and make you want to see it a second time, and soon. The gem is not without a few rough edges and I will get to them over the course of this review — but make no mistake the core brilliance is unmistakable, undeniable, and richly satisfying.
A Pixarian Understanding of Character
Above all, a viewing of John Carter yields this: Stanton is a subtle and sophisticated storyteller with a Pixarian’s understanding of how to build characters that grab you and stay with you. Whereas Cameron in Avatar was content to extract the simple essence of the Burroughsian pulp narrative and just “go with it”, Stanton retains enough of the pulp heritage to keep the material recognizable but constructs characters that, in deft and certain strokes, emerge as fully realized beings who engage us and draw us in to their stories in ways that exceed what his predecessors Lucas, and Cameron, and yes, Burroughs, were able to do. The result is a richer, character driven experience that transcends the dear sweet old pulpy fiber on which it is based and becomes something grander, richer, and more satisfying. It is as if Stanton has taken Burroughs’ extraordinarily vivid imaginative landscape and injected a dose of Tolkien and a smidgen of the poignancy of Wall-E to produce a unique and emotionally engaging world filled with characters you want to get to know better, and see again.
The Gap Between What you see in the promotion, and what you see in the film itself
The promotion promises spectacle and action and there is plenty of that; but the promotion also manages to give the impression that the film will be a kind of childishly simple, woodenly executed mashup of questionable seriousness featuring frequently awkward performances and possibly cartoonish characterization. But the film itself is almost the inverse of that–a thoughtful, finely tuned spectacle that is a feast of imaginative transport, is playfully humorous but emotionally engaging in a satisfyingly adult way, and whose few flaws flow from the fact that it’s a three hour epic (and the first installment of a planned trilogy) that plays in only two hours and twelve minutes. Two examples will illustrate my point: One, in all the trailers, (it seems like all), you see John Carter bark “get on!” with weird gruffness to Dejah Thoris. Whassup with that? Well, the answer is, in the movie, it’s not Dejah Thoris at all he’s saying that to — it’s Sola, the Thark — and the reason he’s being so gruff is that Sola is saying “we Tharks don’t fly” and he’s saying “get over it, and get on”. Two, all of the trailers feature John Carter standing in front of an advancing line of Warhoons and letting out a war cry, then leaping into battle. In the movie itself, there is an emotional setup for that moment that gives it a completely different (and immensely more satisfying) vibe than the trailers are providing. These are but two examples — there are many more. The point is — there’s a gap. Even our fan trailer, which we are fond of, doesn’t do justice to the film itself.
The Cast, the music, the effects
Taylor Kitsch is convincing and natural and I never thought I’d be saying that, based on the promotion. He inhabits John Carter convincingly from the first frame to the last.
Lynn Collins, about whom I had many doubts, is luminous and elevates fully to the level of the “incomparable” Princess of Helium — genuinely beautiful and strong of will and heart. I especially was pleased with Stanton’s strategy for how he introduces her, and those out there who are worried that she is too much of a “warrior princess” — I would say that unless you are really hung up on this issue, you won’t be disappointed. She is a wonderful and wondrous Dejah Thoris and that is an accomplishment.
Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as Sola are both excellent and above reproach; Mark Strong as the delicious villain Matai Shang –Thomas Haden Church, , and Dominic West are without exception strong and satisfying. And James Purefoy as Kantos Kan absolutely steals a scene (in a good way!) and makes you hope we see a lot more of him in the sequels ( and yes, there will be sequels)!
The VFX are state of the art and seamless, and are applied in the service of story and character, as they should be — and the music by Michael Giachinno deserves special mention: haunting, unique, and compellingly suited to the material. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all, given the scope of the story and the many threads to be considered, was editing–and Eric Zumbrunnen seamlessly supports the narrative with a sure and appropriately invisible hand.
The “flaws” amount to quibbles and are generally related to the fact that the film, which comes in at a lean and compact 2 hours 12 minutes, feels as if it has been forced to shed weight like a fluid-drained prizefighter. It could benefit greatly from 10 additional minutes which could have been used profitably to better set up the moment when John Carter and Dejah Thoris “close the deal” on their love and to clarify some story points that are there in the film now but could be highlighted more. In the latter category — John Carter’s life among the Tharks could benefit from a beat implying a passage of time, as this would cause John Carter’s later knowledge of the Tharks and their culture to make more sense (as it is now he seems to pick it up in a matter of days and as audience we never see where that knowledge comes from ). Another “missing beat” that would help immensely would be a moment showing John Carter absorbing the new world he finds himself in, and implicitly comparing it to what he left behind, as preparation for the moment when he makes the psychological choice to become John Carter of Mars. But these minor points should not distract for the overall brilliance with which Stanton has executed a challenging assignment. Moreover, I’m reasonably certain that on a second viewing I will see more evidence that these issues are in fact addressed in the current cut — it’s just that on a first viewing it felt like these areas could stand some strengthening.
A Word to those demanding a “faithful” adaptation
Devotees of great books tend to be very demanding that a film adaptation not deviate from the source material and there is a tendency to object to changes introduced by the film-making team. I have no doubt that this will be the case for many of the most ardent Burroughs fans. Yes, Stanton and Chabon have made changes and you may well not agree with every one of them. But John Carter is John Carter; Dejah Thoris is Dejah Thoris; we have Tars Tarkas, Sola, Kantos Kan, and we have Barsoom all very much as Burroughs imagined them. But this is not paint-by-numbers — this is a powerful act of creation that is recognizably Burroughs, but undeniably Stanton’s as well. Prepare yourself for some changes.
This is a film worth watching multiple times.
John Carter is complex and nuanced enough that subsequent viewings will no doubt reveal new treasures and clarify the minor rough edges — yet it is also compelling and moving on an immersive first viewing in the theater. Like everyone, I’ve got plenty of things going on in my life and my world, distracting things, things that makes me worry, things that drag my mind out of a movie when I’m watching it and pull me back into my world. Not one little tiny bit of that intruded into this movie. I was carried away to Barsoom and was taken by surprise when the film ended — this from someone who is usually pretty acutely aware of structure and running time over the course of a film. Could the full two hours have gone by that fast? How? I thought there was at least another 45 minutes owed to the audience. I wasnt ready to leave Barsoom. On a visceral level, without trying to overthink it — that says a lot about what Andrew Stanton has accomplished, building his own vision on the extraordinary foundation of the grandmaster Edgar Rice Burroughs.
As I sit here now, writing about it, having had time to digest it, I am left with a feeling of profound gratitude to Andrew Stanton for having taken this precious property and “done it proud”, and to Disney for funding it and having the good judgment to let Andrew make it happen his way. Regardless of the commercial outcome, Stanton and Disney have brought the Rosetta Stone of modern science fiction to life on screen and that is a gift that will keep on giving for many years to come.