I’ll start right off by saying I loved this movie. Absolutely, one-hundred-percent loved this movie. It was exciting, funny, interesting, rich, visually stunning, and based on a really great story. Reviews of this film, and of the marketing for it, have been mixed so far. With the trailers, I didn’t fully understand what I was in for, but I enjoy seeing a movie in all its glory, not whittled down to less than two minutes in a give-everything-away commercial. I do think that the trailers and marketing in general don’t really do the movie justice, but I don’t think that should take away from one’s experience with the movie itself. Here is one of the trailers that fell short, in my opinion:
The movie starts out with John Carter, a former Confederate Army captain, searching for a cave of gold. His old Army “buddies” try to get him to fight again in the Civil War. Not caring about the war or believing in either side, he refuses to fight and in trying to escape, ends up finding the cave of gold. Yet there is more than meets the eye to this cave, and Carter ends up shooting a strange being and is transported to a place he later learns is Mars (called “Barsoom” by the locals). And wouldn’t you know, he finds himself smack in the middle of another war.
After having been used to Earth’s gravity, Carter is able to leap incredibly high and he is now immensely stronger. He comes into contact with a strange race of very tall, very green alien creatures called Tharks. They are currently led by Tars Tarkas, who brings Carter back to their camp with the intention of making him fight in an arena. The Tharks are also thrust into the middle of the war on Barsoom when a ship carrying the princess of Helium, who is running from an arranged marriage to the brutish leader of Zodanga, is attacked and John Carter ends up saving her. It is from the princess, Dejah Thoris, that Carter learns about the warring factions and the history of Mars/Barsoom.
Now Carter faces the same dilemma as he did back on Earth; he is being asked to fight in a war that he doesn’t care about. Yet in his attempts to find his way home he ends up falling in love with Princess Dejah Thoris and learns to care, and thus decides to be the hero. The main story is bookended by the retelling of events to Carter’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, rather nicely, and serves as a great way to both tie up the movie and leave things open for a sequel. There was a lot to set up in this first movie, especially since it is supposed to pave the way for a franchise, but I think director/Writer Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL*E) did so many things right, and hit the perfect tone with every choice he made.
Hollywood is notoriously good at turning great stories to shit. And with a story this big and this (cough) far out, it could have easily gone bad. John Carter is the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, and this first film is the story from the novel A Princess of Mars. The books by Burroughs were a mix of planetary romance, western, science fantasy, and pulp fiction. I feel like the movie stayed true to all of these genres, which is no easy task. This film reminded me, in a good way, of Indiana Jones, Star Wars (I said it), Dune, and Stargate. The race of holy Therns even kept reminding me of Dark City.
Fitting within the conventions of such stylized genres can be a hard thing to do. There are some cheesy scenes and goofy dialogue, but I feel like it was done in the right spirit, and didn’t go overboard. I felt in a lot of ways that this film embodied some of the same humor that endeared me to the first three Indiana Jones films. I got the same giddy elation as when I saw Temple of Doom for the first time, and it’s been a long since a movie has made me this happy.
In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that this film was everything that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been but wasn’t. Granted, it’s easier to sell a man’s fight against two giant, blind, white apes on Mars than it is to sell an old professor surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator on Earth. But what John Carter did that Crystal Skull didn’t do was suck you in to the story and the world it’s happening in.
The visual style and effects of John Carter were also amazing. I generally hate CG; I prefer to have animatronics and puppets and makeup. I think this film was a perfect example of CG done right. I thought the design and art of the Tharks was outstanding. The detail was stunning and I never once thought that they weren’t standing right there with all the human characters. I felt that all actors delivered great performances; Taylor Kitsch was perfect as hero John Carter, and on top of being one hot princess, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris was quite good. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas was great, and I didn’t even recognize his voice because his character performance was so solid.
I even didn’t mind the 3D, and actually thought it enhanced some of the scenes. In 2011’s Conan the Barbarian I despised the 3D because I couldn’t understand what was happening in the battle scenes, which are somewhat important in that kind of film. However, in John Carter, scenes like the opening airship battle looked so neat in 3D and the depth of field was quite good. I will definitely be seeing it in 2D the next time I go though, and you can bet I’ll be visiting the theatre for this treat again.
Really it all comes down to the fact that I had too much fun and childlike wonder watching this film to fault the movie. This will happen to me sometimes but when I think back about the film days later I realize, meh, it wasn’t that good. That’s not the case with John Carter, however. The more I think about this movie, the more I can’t wait to watch it again. Personally, I can’t wait to see more from this series and I hope that more people feel the same. I give it 4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls.