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March 12, 2012

Movie Mondays: John Carter

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Written by: Aaron
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... Of Mars
... Of Mars

Bland Poster… one example of how the marketing severely hurt this film at the box-office

Title: John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers:
Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon, based on the stories and characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures
Starring:
Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Thomas Hayden Church, Samantha Morton, James Purefoy, Ciarán Hinds, Bryan Cranston
Release Date:
March 9, 2012
MPAA:
Rated PG-13

John Carter is the story of a Confederate Soldier from Virginia that gets mysteriously transported to the planet Mars (the human name for the planet of Barsoom), and is eventually swept up in yet another Civil War, only now between different warring factions on Mars. Like the books the film is based on, this story is presented by way of stories and memoirs passed down from Uncle Jack (John Carter) to his nephew Ned, aka Edgar Rice Burroughs. In this way, the audience now has a framing story to work with, wherein they are presented with what are essentially multiple flashbacks leading back up to where the story begins…and beyond.

John's young nephew Ned

Edgar Rice Burroughs perusing his late Uncle’s memoirs.

The biggest complaints, as far as looking at the film as ONLY a film and not an adaptation, that come to mind are two-fold. The first of which is the dialog. A lot of the script is great, but there are a good number of heavy-handed, ham-fisted, corny lines and deliveries. While overly melodramatic dialog like this does a decent job of representing the 1910s-1940s Pulp Adventure Magazine source material, it doesn’t translate very well into a film (especially a modern one). The other offending aspect of the film that should be addressed is that of the musical score. It’s just bland, generic, unremarkable, and unmemorable. This is sad, folks, because Michael Giacchino has created some masterful, enjoyable, memorable, breathtaking scores in the past. The first Medal of Honor game and films like The Incredibles, Speed Racer, and Star Trek all had great scores. This just falls flat.

These complaints should not be seen as an outright dismissal or anything even remotely along those lines. The movie is quite remarkable by any standard, and to still be so impressive despite a few bad bits of dialog and a surprisingly unremarkable score, must mean that the rest of the film is quite good.

John Carter of Mars

No, He-Man didn’t dye his hair. That’s our hero John Carter!

The acting is all rather top-notch, from the most minor of side-characters to the film’s leading stars. Everyone seems to be thoroughly invested in their performance and they all come together to add a sincerity and verisimilitude, which is always needed in a film with such a reliance on artificially created characters and such an implausible premise (like most Space Operas or sci-fi epic hopefuls). The plot was terrific, not too overblown (and given the subject matter, it very easily could have been). The pacing and editing were handled very well, with the story slowing down when necessary and swiftly picking up the pace as needed. Furthermore, the costumes are lavish, beautiful, and just plain cool. From the soldiers’ armor to the Thark’s harnesses, John Carter’s coverings, to everyone’s cloaks, robes, and dresses, everything is amazing to look at.

Lynn Collins playing a smart, strong, beautiful Warrior/Princess/Scientist… Works for me!

The level of detail in these CGI creations provides a necessary tangibility.

Some of the most important things in a sci-fi picture like this are the special effects and creatures that this world has to be full of to make it come alive. And this film nails it! The CGI was absolutely amazing. The Tharks (Green Martians) are presented with astonishing detail that make them seem as real as the live-action actors portraying the Red Martians (the tan, tattooed humanoids). The detailing in the skin, the cracks, the scars, the textures, as well as being able to see individual hairs in the fur shoulder-covers, even the detailing on the tusks with the way the lighting would illuminate the hollowed sections of Tal Hajus’s broken tusk…will blow your mind. Little details like that are to be admired and enjoyed.

One would be remiss if this review didn’t mention one sequence in particular. This sequence is the film’s centerpiece. There’s a moment in the film where John turns to assault a charging group of Warhoons (savage, villainous Tharks) to defend his companions, that dwarfs every other scene in the film. It’s filled with such raw emotion and intensity, and ends in a shot that the late, great Frank Frazetta would be proud of. To avoid risk of spoilers, that’s all that shall be said on the subject.

“I was too late once… I won’t be again.”

Now, one should offer a fair warning to the more die-hard, stricter fans of these books.
It is not strictly based on the first book. It adds a new back-story for the titular hero and changes a few of the smaller plot elements, none of which shall be mentioned specifically in order to avoid spoilers. Though, while the changes from the book weren’t necessary, they didn’t hurt the story or hinder it in any way. While the framing story is a new story, exclusive to the film, it is used in a way that allows the film to cull various aspects and thematic elements from multiple John Carter stories, and not just the original, in order to make a more fully realized world, so that it might be easier to bridge the gap between sequels.

This is wonderful, because the ending is altered in the process. And the altered ending is open-ended enough to illustrate director Andrew Stanton’s wish for sequels, yet features enough closure that if the proposed sequels never come to fruition, it still works terrifically as a stand-alone film.

That perfect amount of ugly that’s just so cute!

Finally, one thing that should be addressed is the character of Woola. Woola!!! Woola is a calot, the Martian equivalent to an Earth dog. It looks like a bullfrog faced, flat-snouted dog with bulldog jowls, with ten legs, and a giant mouth filled with three rows of teeth, that’s roughly the size of a small Shetland pony. Woola steals the show! He simply  rocked! Fans of the original stories should be really happy with his portrayal.

So, even if the overall framing story is a new version of the stories Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about John Carter and the people of Mars, it still perfectly captures the feel of those original stories. Truly, this film is a treat for all, young and old, fans and newcomers alike.

As a stand-alone film, I’d give this outstandingly good action/adventure sci-fi epic a solid 9 out of 10.
As an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, I’d give it 6.5 out of 10.
As an adaptation of ERB’s Barsoom series as a whole I’d give it 8 out of 10.

Aaron Nicewonger
Aaron@comicattack.net
aarongni@gmail.com

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