I don’t know about you, but when I saw the 30 second spot on TV advertising John Carter, it immediately reminded me of both The Phantom Menace and the recent flop Conan the Barbarian. Two films you really don’t want to remind people of when promoting your own, especially as the result was that every negative thing about those two films clouded my perception and suggested that John Carter would be a waste of my time.
I figured that would be the last I’d hear of John Carter, but then two weeks ago, a large number of critics started giving the film positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 75% fresh rating, which if you consider that critics usually begin foaming at the mouth for a good scathing, makes it all the more intriguing. I decided to give it a second chance and went into the screening with an open mind.
The film is based on the series of books written by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, between 1912-48. Focusing particularly on The Princess of Mars, the first book in the series, which was written about the same time the Titanic was sinking. Which goes some way to explain the setting of the opening act: in the last few decades leading into the 20th Century…
Former Confederate captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is mysteriously transported to Mars (“Barsoom”) where he becomes part of a conflict between the various nations of the planet, whose leaders include Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe) and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Carter takes it upon himself to save Barsoom and its people from a growing threat [Walt Disney Pictures]
Going into the cinema, I decided to opt for the 3D experience, as there are very few times in my life when I get to wear thick-rimmed spectacles and pretend I’m a hipster for a few hours – which in hindsight, really wasn’t worth it.
The opening of the film takes place in the Wild West of 1868, something that may have taken a few viewers by surprise as all marketing for the film focused on the heavily CGI’d action sequences. A fact that Disney realised last week and began pushing a ten minute preview to bloggers, in the hope that it would clear up any misconceptions.
We are introduced to John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War Confederate-veteran, who has turned to prospecting for gold in the wilderness of the Arizona Territory, so that he may finally live a life which is free from the chaos of war and retreat from its everyday struggles. He’s lost everyone he ever loved and wants nothing more to do with society. That all changes when he stumbles upon a mystical device that magically whisks him away to Mars, or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. Our hero must quickly come to terms with the alien world before him and find his way back home.
On Mars, Carter must first come to terms with the basics of Martian gravity, finding himself leaping five stories high with the most effortless jump. He is soon captured by the locals, referred to as Tharks, and treated like a prized pet, by their leader Tars Tarkas (played by Willem Defoe on stilts – I kid you not). The two eventually form an unlikely friendship which somehow works, reflecting on the superb character development that director, Andrew Stanton, brings from such Pixar greats as Finding Nemo. From then on Carter’s world is consumed by Barsoom’s politics, conflicts and a group of mysterious enemies hidden in the shadows – threatening not only Mars, but Earth as well.
The film felt a little rushed in places, even though it has a running time of 132 min. I’d opt for the 2D experience, as 3D just seemed pointless and under-utilized. Michael Giacchino provides the score, and if any of you Lost fans are out there, you’ll remember his signature sound throughout the series. His score alone makes John Carter a better film, which explains why he is in such high demand these days.
There were some bad points of course, regarding the rushed love story, but overall I would place John Carter at a crossroads between Indiana Jones and the original Star Wars Trilogy, with a dash of Pixar’s Finding Nemo for good measure. I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece, but rather a good old fashioned action-adventure with more heart than any summer blockbuster, jam-packed with super heroes, could ever dream of.
The film has taken a staggering 100 years to make it to the cinema, with many attempts falling flat and some rejected outright by the studios, perhaps fearing the audacious scale in front of them. Right now the film is suffering a marketing nightmare and is projected to make a loss at the box office, which is a shame considering a further two films were in the works to complete the trilogy. We’ll have to see if Disney hedges it’s bets, cuts it’s losses and pushes on with the franchise. At least I hope it does.