“John Carter” Review

It is sort of a shame that so few people are going to see John Carter, because it is actually pretty good in a fun, goofily earnest sort of way. Adapted from the 1917 novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter feels a lot like most sci-fi fare that we’ve already seen. That’s because Burroughs’ epic is widely regarded as a seminal work for the genre. In essence it laid the groundwork for modern science fiction storytelling. Without Burroughs it is fair to say that we wouldn’t have Star Wars or even Avatar. However, this all plays against the film. To the Burroughs-ignorant, Carter will likely feel like a rehashing of so much that has come before it. Despite the fact that all that actually came after it.

John Carter marks Andrew Stanton’s first foray into the big bad world of live action filmmaking. Even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve seen his work, he’s one of Pixar’s top guys. He is responsible for the two gems Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Which makes up two-fifths of my top five favorite animated films. Reportedly Stanton candidly told Disney executives, “I’m not going to get it right the first time.” And, well, he was right to some extent. John Carter is far from flawless and it struggles under its huge scope. The storytelling suffers from having a few too many characters to keep track of, occasionally unclear motivations, and some pacing issues. This lack of clarity might cause some head scratching, which undermines what the film gets right. Fortunately, Stanton delivers on the fronts that matter most. The characters that we’re asked to root for are given proper arcs with solid development. Something that is all too often missing from these tentpole films. Thankfully these characters are portrayed by some fine actors. Willem Dafoe’s digital incarnation is a standout. Lynn Collins shines as the originally titular princess, Dejah Thoris. She brings charm, heart, and even some ferocity to what could have been a lackluster character. Taylor Kitsch is fine as Carter, bringing the right combination of world weariness and inborn sense of justice to the table. In a pivotal flashback, where we discover his reasons for being such a despondent hero, he sells the pain and the catharsis.

Michael Giacchino proves yet again that he’s the best composer in Hollywood right now. His stirring score evokes a sense of wonder and grandeur on scale with that of the imagery. The world of Mars, er…I mean Barsoom, is exceptionally crafted. Stanton and co. have expertly combined green screens, motion capture, location shooting, and good old fashioned sets into one seamless experience. The planet of Barsoom feels all but completely realized on the screen. From the four armed Tharks to the oddly human Heliumites (yes, these are the real names, I haven’t even mentioned Zodanga yet) everything has been precisely designed and masterfully brought to life. The animation is extraordinary, but did you expect anything less from the artists at Pixar? The completely digital creatures hardly feel artificial and each behaves exactly as you’d expect. It is quite something to behold when you instantly believe in these creatures as they interact with humans like Carter.

So it’s clear that I liked the film. I didn’t love it, it’s not a great film, but it is far, far from a bad one. It’s a film I respect for its ambition and for how much of that its team realized. I admire Stanton. Having spent the better part of that last few days reading up on him and watching him in interviews, I got the sense that he’s an earnest guy who loves storytelling. I respect that, even if Carter stumbles here and there.

Which ineptly brings me to my next point: I hate the world we live in sometimes. The internet has given too loud and too voluble a voice to the naysayers and whiners. I hate how we as audience members can easily dismiss films like this. Too often you hear “Oh, that sucked,” “What trash!” and the like, only with words of greater strength (vulgarity) and vehemence (bitterness). I know because I’ve used them. Yes, Transformers doesn’t tell that compelling of a story, but the entire trilogy is a technical marvel. Avatar may have been derivative, but it was absolutely stunning to watch. I’m not saying these films are great, I’m not talking about their quality as a story, but as an achievement of skill and determination. Unless you’ve ever attempted (and hopefully succeeded) to make a film (of any length) you have no idea what it takes. I’m hear to tell you: it takes a lot. Then we get to come along and lambast a film simply because it didn’t jell with us, completely ignoring the thousands of man hours it took to make. It is despicable.

So what am I getting at? People are certainly allowed their opinion and their taste. What I’m saying is that we’ve become (or maybe we’ve always been) a culture with no respect. By and large films are meant to entertain and not much else. We need to appreciate the fact that people like Stanton are willing to devote years of their lives just to put a smile on our face. He doesn’t owe us anything, but he wants to delight us all the same.

John Carter didn’t deserve the critical treatment it got. Is it a superb film? No, but it is a good one, a fun one, and a largely successful one. Stanton set out to craft an interplanetary epic, and you know what? He did just that and he did the best damn job he could with the tools made available to him.

Don’t write off John Carter just yet.