“John Carter” review – Barsoom or bust!

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What if you made a blockbuster and nobody came?

Disney and Andrew Stanton appear to be confronting this rather disagreeable reality with the release of their would-be  franchise starting sci-fantasy epic, “John Carter”.  The advance word had it that this was a disaster in waiting, with no buzz to speak of, a dismal series of confused trailers and an industry-wide belief that Disney were getting ready to write off the film before they even released it.

I’m going to stand up and say that this corporate defeatism sucks because “John Carter” is a truly fantastic piece of cinematic entertainment and it deserves to be a massive hit.

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Unlike my compadre, Geek Soul Brother, I’m not familiar with the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels from which this film is adapted, so my enthusiasm comes purely from seeing and enjoying the movie – it feels utterly contemporary in terms of effects and technology but at the same time oddly comforting and familiar, presumably because we’ve seen decades of sci-fi and fantasy movies appropriating Burroughs’ settings and ideas for other adventures.

If you’ve seen “Star Wars”, “Avatar”, “Stargate” or the 1980 “Flash Gordon”, the chances are that you’ll see something in “John Carter” which seems at once brand new and as comfortable as a favourite hoodie – it’s arguable that this works against the film, as younger viewers without the appreciation for cinematic history may feel that this putative blockbuster is ripping off the very films which are almost certainly guilty of ripping off Burroughs pulp hero and his antics on Barsoom, the Martian people’s name for their home planet.

The director of this adaptation is Andrew Stanton, who makes his live action film-making debut after making the likes of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” for Pixar Animation Studios, following in the recent footsteps of colleague Brad Bird, who went from directing “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” to helming “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol”.

It’s a very confident and striking film, realised with a budget which is equal to the scope of Burroughs Martian adventures, and one which dares to treat the audience as being smart enough to handle an occasionally non-linear style of storytelling and an opening section which takes a while establishing Civil War cavalryman Carter’s history and character before we get into the bang-crash action which accompanies Carter’s arrival on Mars/Barsoom.

Refreshingly, Stanton hasn’t marooned his actors in the midst of all-out spectacle and gives them material to work with – unlike George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, you never get the sense that the director occasionally regards his actors as obstacles to getting on with the eye candy and CG-assisted mayhem.

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That’s not to say that this is in any way inaccessible or high-faluting fare – this is a crowd-pleasing sci-fi adventure with bonkers set-pieces from now until Sunday next and the best digital characters – four armed, nine-foot tall Tharks – this side of a James Cameron flick.  It’s just that actors of the calibre of Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Samantha Morton and Dominic West (Sheffield represent!) are not mired by green-screen acting and reacting to virtual characters and can give performances which are genuinely engaging.  They’re clearly not playing Shakespeare but they’re equally not phoning it in, because it’s only a sci-fi picture.

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I was particularly taken by Lynn Collins, who plays the Martian Princess and scientist Dejah Thoris, whose character appears to had the majority of work done to bring her up to date for a contemporary audience – she’s absolutely capable of saving herself and getting out of the cliff-hanging dangers in which she finds herself battling to survive.

She’s not a Princess who simpers and waits to be rescued – more an able and equal partner to Carter in the adventure that they find themselves in.  Collins struggles a bit with a received pronunciation accent which somehow contrives to make her character sound more like Kate Middleton than anybody else, but her energy and earnestness carried the day for me.

I’m not wanting to diminish Kitsch’s work in any way – he’s got the most difficult role here, in some respects, as his adventuring hero could very easily be the stuff of dog-eared cliche.  He’s a Southern gentleman with a tragic past, he’s a rebel who doesn’t want to fight but is forced to, and a audience identification figure who has miraculous superhuman powers and rugged good looks and fabulous hair.

You should hate him, but you really don’t.  I’m not familiar with Kitsch’s work in “Friday Night Lights”, so I really only have this film and his brief cough-and-spit cameo in as Gambit in the “Wolverine” spin-off movie to draw from, but I was quite impressed by him.   He’s got the ability to convey the subtle grief of Carter’s personal losses and the physicality to convincingly embody the title character’s change towards becoming a confident, take charge, swashbuckling action hero.

He’s definitely an old-fashioned hero but one who doesn’t have the old-school baggage of prehistoric attitudes to women to drag him down.  I really liked him, particularly in the scenes which book-end the main action on Barsoom, and would love to see more of his stories realised on screen.

Sadly, short of a miracle, it doesn’t seem as though we’ll get to see any more of “John Carter” tall tales told on screen if the weekend’s anaemic financial performance of the film is any indicator.

I’d suggest that if you like your sci-fi full of derring-do, devoid of fashionable snark and told by people who really know what they’re doing, you should make seeing this film on the biggest possible screen a priority – it’s an earnest, pulp adventure told with style, realised beautifully and speaking to the small, wide-eyed child who lives in the heart of every geek and nerd.

If you’ve ever looked at the screen, or read from a page and wanted to join in the impossible adventures depicted therein, “John Carter” is the film for you.

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9 Comments

Filed under Random Notes

9 responses to ““John Carter” review – Barsoom or bust!

  1. Thanks for the review. I’m actually now considering going to the film…

    • If your cinema is anything like mine was today, you’ll have plenty of choice of where to sit…

      • I saw it a few nights ago at an advance screening. The marketing had actually put me off of the film. “If the trailers are so consistently terrible,” I thought, “the film must be a disaster.” Yet as the release date approached, as I read more interviews with Andrew Stanton and Michael Chabon, I started to feel a stirring of hope, and when I sat down on Tuesday night I was downright giddy.

        I thought it was awesome.

        I mean, it wasn’t perfect. But it distilled the essence of A Princess of Mars down to its essentials, and Stanton and Chabon wrote a script that took Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 planetary romance and made it into something that a 2012 audience, who has a completely different set of cultural references, can understand and embrace. (My full review is on my blog here.) John Carter is why people go to the movies — it’s a spectacle, it’s moving, it’s funny, and, above all, it’s entertaining. I had fun with John Carter, and I’m thinking of going to see it again, this time in 2-D. (The advance screening was in 3-D. I didn’t always enjoy the 3-D.)

        I know where Burroughs goes next, but I don’t know where this movie goes next — and I really want to know.

      • That was my experience as well. Maybe a dozen or so people in the theater for the opening weekend of a movie that cost more than $250 million?

        Not encouraging.

      • Yeah – my screening was a Saturday morning showing, but I’m not seeing better reports elsewhere on the internet. That much-vaunted uptick in US box office results obviously isn’t going to extend to this worthy film.

        Still, they seem to love it in Russia…

  2. Summit10

    a small amount for the opening weekend which is quite disturbing or rather being faced with the ambiguities of cliched film making. Edgar Burroughs, Sir Conan Doyle, Brothers Grimm all have fantastic characters and worlds to share with readers and audiences alike. I hope it bounces back in the coming few weeks…very well written! Cheers!

  3. Thanks for the shout Rick. It would be a shame if this movie ends up failing in the long run. Let’s hope word-of-mouth does what the marketing team didn’t. Parents should ignore the rating and take their tweens to see it. I would have loved to see Disney make the 2nd and 3rd books. Oh well.

  4. Oh, and great review dude!

  5. Good review Rick. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back.

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