Review: John Carter (Ian’s Take)
Ian Loring March 5, 2012 0
It’s the first blockbuster of 2012 and it’s got a lot riding on it for Disney as sci-fi epic John Carter is released everywhere this weekend.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Civil War soldier who dies under mysterious circumstances. Leaving his estate to nephew Edgar (Daryl Sabara) he recounts through a series of letters his tales of being sent to Mars (or as its known in the world of the film Barsoom) where he is initially taken hostage by green skinned 4 armed warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) before becoming wrapped up in an adventure to save the planet as Princess Deja (Lynn Collins) convinces him that he has found a cause worth fighting for.
If you’ve got even a passing interest in the film business, you’ll know that John Carter has become more and more linked to the idea that it’s going to be a bomb. Reports of it being Disney’s biggest write-off ever and general rumblings that the Mouse House never really knew what to do with the property have led to a feeling that this film is DOA before it’s even approached A as such but the film is now out there, it has been screening and Andrew Stanton’s film can stand up for itself and do it’s own talking.
It can do so proudly.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is just how it shuns many of the modern story telling conventions today’s blockbuster cinema is offering its huge audiences. Instead of going for quirky characters with modern vocabularies and a rather lowest common denominator sense of humour (Hi Transformers!), Andrew Stanton has crafted a film which feels appropriately 2012 but also has many of the values of the action-adventure films of days gone by. Yes our characters do get funny, lighter moments but this is a tale where John Carter is a real traditional hero. He has hurt inside but he fights for the little guy with the good values. He’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s not constantly switching sides in a vain bid by the screenwriters to keep the audience awake. No, Carter is a consistent character who learns and grows and through doing this , we have a hero you can flat out cheer on as he swings around rescuing women falling from great heights or winning a crowds approval in a gladiatorial arena. Yes, it sounds old-school, but should that be a problem? I certainly don’t think so.
Much of this success is also down to Taylor Kitsch who is essentially the Sam Worthington of 2012, being thrown into huge mega budget spectacles without too much pre-awareness by the masses but after this, I look forward to seeing what he does with Battleship as he creates a warm, honest and altogether real feeling character who kicks ass but also emotes, something altogether lacking from almost anything the aforementioned Worthington has managed thus far. He’s a thoroughly engaging screen presence who builds a wonderful character to add to in future sequels if we see them.
Kitsch isn’t the only impressive performer though as Lynn Collins also has a bit of a starmaker with a sexy and vibrant turn as the Princess who is able to keep up with the boys and also happens to demonstrate on multiple occasions that she is smarter than them. Dominic West perhaps suffers from being little more than a puppet on a string with his showing here but Mark Strong makes up for that with a wonderfully ominous presence who is obviously bad but it’s never made clear what he’s really up to, playing multiple sides against each other and surveying the carnage after. He’s obviously the big bad of the franchise but he’s one I’m looking forward to seeing again.
For our CG heroes, Willem Dafoe heads up an impressive bunch with a warrior whose ways need to change as he embraces the ways Carter teaches and Dafoe delivers a stoic presence who also isn’t afraid to indulge in a bit of banter. His earliest scenes with Carter are his best as he struggles to understand what Carter actually is and uses him more as a pet than anything else but through the film the two form a strong friendship, and this is helped by wonderful CG which always makes the two look like they are actually interacting with each other. Samantha Morton gets less to do as the Thark who goes on the journey with Carter, her character’s arc written pretty much around one plot point which is never really developed but she’s still a welcome presence. It’s also fair to say that “frog dog” Woola is one of the best animal sidekicks to come along in a fair old while.
As well as the fun of the whole enterprise though, there’s enough here which is emotionally engaging to make sure that unlike many blockbusters, we actually care about what happens to the characters. None of the arcs ever get particularly deep or dark but John Carter has a traumatic past and through the film we see him work through this and find a way past it, particularly in the sequence which is likely my favourite of the entire runtime, not a grand action piece but a scene where Carter engages in battle this being crosscut with events from his past and this means both separate parts gain a far more effective level of engagement through their cutting together It’s deliberate and exacting direction from Stanton which shows you that alongside Brad Bird he’s an animation director who can obviously play in the live action arena.
John Carter is a pure distillation of old-fashioned action-adventure with bare chested heroes, warrior princesses and mysterious malevolent foes brought bang up to date to 2012 with A-class CGI and an epic look and feel which goes a huge way to justifying just why the whole thing cost upwards of $250 million. 2012?s first blockbuster is a real winner and is one which deserves a broad audience willing to give in to epic somewhat retro fun with its heart on its sleeve.
One last thing. The way the film acknowledges the title change at the end is a masterstroke.