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John Carter Review: “Fresh and emotionally stirring in unexpected ways. 9/10”

Barsoom

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.

My Quibbles
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.

10 comments

  • Thank you very much for the review. I’ve had nothing but a positive vibe for this movie since the first trailer hit – I knew I loved the source material, and I trusted Stanton. Still, it’s a relief to see that a Burroughs devotee enjoyed it. I think we all knew the book would not be transcribed exactly as written to screen. Fingers crossed this movie does very well at the box office.
    Now, if we can get a great, epic Tarzan movie made and, sigh, a Doc Savage one, I could be a content old dude…

  • Thanks for the thoughtful and well written review. You have increased my hopes for the movie twofold.

  • Kaor, Aura! That’s awesome! So glad you got to see it early. It will stay inside your head forever now……#GoBarsoom!

  • Kaor Dotar!

    Just got back from DC premiere. I am a ERB purist too, but the changes did not detract from the experience, as Stanton, just as you said , was able to inject into the story resonance that
    arguably lacked in serialized chapters.

    No spoilers now. Everyone, just go to see it. We really need a few trilogies of this world.
    I will be counting the days til Gods is announced…Stanton understandably wants to meter out all the fantastic features of Mars and the Cult of Issus, as it will build going into Warlord…

    I am so satisfyingly drained. And will be there to see it again the 8th to get my stack of posters!

    Thank you Mike, for your site, and will watch for news of sequel confirmation, which I predict
    will come much sooner than later… Kaor! (RT score 95+)

  • Well, to be generous to the Disney marketing department, I’d say they were aiming for a tone of mystery: the first poster didn’t have the name of the film, the second poster showed Carter as a shadowy figure, all the trailers keep the film’s locale in the dark.

    But at the end of the day, I suspect it will turn out that the marketers were just inept.

    Still, I can’t believe Disney actually wants to bury the movie. They wouldn’t have had all these previews if that were so. Even the review embargo is probably standard.

  • The score really stood out as excellent; and the David Lean-ish sweep of it all. Totally immersive experience was what really did it for me.

  • Thanks for the in-depth review; it was a pleasure to read. I’m wondering if the Disney marketers deliberately created the worst promotion possible (like a contest to see who could cut the worst trailer), lowering expectations, thereby increasing the impact of the film.

    Probably not, but it’s a better thought than the alternative.

    I know it’s hard to answer without being spoilerish, but what would you say the best thing about the movie was? (Woola, Dejah, the score etc.) The worst?

  • Audience reaction was great — we have a post up here with video interviews after the screening, but it was good throughout. There is one moment, and only one, where I felt the audience squirm but for reasons I can’t reveal without it being a spoiler, I think it may have been precisely the reaction Stanton was looking for at that moment.

    I think you’ve got the right attitude to be able to properly enjoy this for what it is…;-)

  • Thanks for the excellent spoiler-free review! Or rather, your critique of the movie as an experience. How did the audience react? Did people laugh at the right moments?

    I think I’ve come to terms with the loss of the atmosphere factory. ERB never integrated that well into his story (why did someone kill the keeper of the factory?) and so I’ll just let it go. Besides, “Total Recall” kinda ruined that (although I don’t know if that carries over into the remake).

    And having just reread “Gods” and “Warlord” I can see combining Dejah’s father and grandfather — neither one does all that much.

    Plus, John Carter can at times be the dumbest hero on two worlds, so I for one am glad for Stanton’s more nuanced characterization.

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