Friday, February 24, 2012

'John Carter' Review - A Perfect Return to Pulp Fiction Adventure and Science Fiction

For over a hundred years, Edgar Rice Burroughs' eleven book 'Barsoom' series, which began with 'A Princess of Mars', has been an inspiration for many of our most well known science fiction films, and has become a small staple of popular culture. Things like 'Star Wars', 'Avatar', 'Flash Gordon', 'Buck Rogers' as well as authors like Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke have all been inspired by Burroughs and his many characters and their adventures on the planet Barsoom, or as we know it as, Mars. But no character from the series has become more popular over time than John Carter, the hero of many of Burroughs' 'Barsoom' novels. Hollywood has spent many years of attempting to bring John Carter and Barsoom to the big screen, and now Academy award winning director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-e) and Walt Disney Pictures have worked together to finally give this series it's due on the big screen. Stanton has managed to bring the incredible world Burroughs envisioned all those years ago to the big screen in a true pulp fiction style adventure that fans and newcomers alike will fall in love with. This is science fiction, as well as action and adventure, at its finest.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a once Confederate soldier, is a man with nothing to lose. He dreams of finding  a gold in the Arizona territory so he can spend the rest of his days as a rich man. But in the midst of a struggle with some Apache Indians, Carter finds himself transported to new world known as Barsoom, or as he knows it as, Mars. Because of the gravity differences, Carter is now stronger, faster, and can jump higher than anyone else on the planet, which makes him a target as an ally for some, such as Prince Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), or an enemy for others.  But Carter soon realizes there is more happening on Barsoom than some may realize, and finds that he may the only person who can save the planet and it's people from complete destruction.

For Stanton being a first time live action director, he absolutely nails it. 'John Carter' has been Stanton's passion project for a long time, and it really shows. Being a huge fan of the source material, he makes sure that this is a movie that fans of the series will come to love and embrace, while also catering to an audience who may not be familiar with the material or the character. But the most important thing he did is take material that's been borrowed from so heavily over the century and make it new, exciting, and fresh. Sure, we've seen stories like this many times before, but this is also the original, so it's hard to fault the film for that. He's taken a plot that has been so heavily borrowed from before and made it incredibly fun, and you forget that you may have seen things similar to it before. Stanton finds the perfect balance between action and character development, which is something many directors seem to miss. The action, while not long, is great, especially considering it's Stanton's first live action film. It's well spread out throughout the film, but the moments without it are never boring. Fora movie that's two hours and twenty minutes long, that's a build deal. The breaks in action are used to really get to know the characters and their struggles, as well as what makes them tick and what motivates them. Stanton wants to make sure you know these characters, and that you care about them. If you don't, then this movie wouldn't work.

For any of these characters to work though, you have to make sure you have actors that you can convey the emotion that you want and bring them to life. And luckily for Stanton, he has found a cast that is perfect across the board. First and foremost, there has been a lot of backlash against the casting of Taylor Kitsch as John Carter, which couldn't be farther from the truth. Kitsch is absolutely perfect as the hero, and he really brings the character I've loved for so many years to life on the big screen. Stanton wouldn't cast just anyone as these characters, so trust when I tell you that he's found the perfect Carter. Kitsch is not a one dimensional actor, and he brings a lot the character, where we can see the pain behind his eyes from his past, and his uncertainty of the future and what it holds for him. On top of that, he brings the wonder and excitement of John to life in this new place. He is the audiences eyes into this new world, and he's perfect at it. But this movie isn't just about Taylor Kitsch. This movie has an excellent supporting cast. Lynn Collins is great as the beautiful and feisty Prince Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars. Much like Kitsch, we learn to love and care about Dejah early on, and how all she wants to do is save the people of Barsoom from their uncertain fate. What's also important is that she and Kitsch have great chemistry together, and we really believe about the love and care between these two characters as the movie progresses. This movie wouldn't work without their relationship being believable, so I'm glad to see it come to life here.

Those two aside, I must not forget about about Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, the Thark leader, and the man who finds John Carter. Dafoe is great as the alien being who befriends Carter, and really makes us feel for Tars. He is just as human as he is alien, even behind the motion captured CGI. Dafoe is a great actor, and he really brings Tars to life in a way that many actors wouldn't be able to. For me, his performance reaches that of Andy Serkis' in 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' for  one of my favorite motion capture characters.  I'd like to give a shout out to Mark Strong, who is a presence throughout the movie, and one that really stands out. I really liked Strong here, but I won't go in to too much detail about his character or who he is. But Strong was really quite good here, and he is quickly becoming an actor I will go out of my way to say. And last but not least, I have to say how much I loved Bryan Cranston's brief role at the beginning of the film. Cranston is such a terrific actor, and his ten minutes in the film he really shines.

One thing that really stands out to me is Michael Giacchino's score of the film. It's sweeping and epic and really helps elevate the movie. I've found over the past two days since seeing the movie, I have been continually humming the movie's theme. It's very memorable, which is needs to be for a movie like this. A truly great movie has to have a memorable soundtrack, and Giacchino absolutely delivers that here. He has become one of my favorite music composers, and I find I'm always looking forward to what he does next. If we do get to see the 'Barsoom' series continue, I hope that he will be a part of the series that stays with it. His music really did help make the movie. There is also a perfect balance of humor in this movie. It's got many funny moments, but nothing that takes away from the movie, or anything that becomes terribly annoying. That is always a concern I have going into movies like this, but it isn't a problem here. As far as the 3D goes, it really doesn't add much to the film and just makes it look darker than it should. It's a decent post conversion job, but I'd suggest seeing it in 2D instead of 3D.

I also have to say, as a fan of the book series, I really was pleased to see that it sticks to the source material wherever possible, and only deviates when it will work better for the movie. Stanton makes sure, as I said before, that fans of the series will embrace this movie, and he does an amazing job doing that. I never thought I'd see the 'Barsoom' series so well done on the big screen, but Stanton has done it in spades. He's brought a childhood fantasy to life in a way many books don't get the chance to.

This is filmmaking at it's absolute finest. A riproaring adventure that takes you to a whole new world, and you forget about everything else around you. The cast, many that are up and comers, as well as great character actors throughout, really help bring the movie to life. From beginning to end I was glued to the screen in this world. Everything from the sweeping score, great direction, amazing cast, and fun action and adventure feel of the movie reminded me of days long gone from Hollywood. Movies that are made as pure escapism fun in a pulp fiction style adventure. 'John Carter' is a return to the Hollywood we all fell in love, and I can't recommend this movie enough. For me, this must have been what it was like seeing 'Star Wars' for the first time on May 25, 1977. I love this movie more than I've loved any other movie in a long time. Go see it, and I hope you fall in love with it as I have.

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  1. Read your condensed review at imdb and it is one of my favorites. I read the Burroughs' MARS series as a kid in the ACE paperbacks and was enthralled. Too bad most kids today have govwernment-school/TV-trained infantile mindsets and don't repond to red-blooded American male storytelling. "JOHN CARTER" will be enjoyed in the same vein as many rational adults enjoy "Star Wars",, (1933) KING KONG, etc. for millennia to come... Keep up the good work, son! Thanks a million for saying what I would say!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, pylgrym! I'm glad you took the time to read what I had to say and that you like what I had to say. That means a lot. If it wasn't for you guys, the readers, I wouldn't keep doing this. I really do think Stanton has created an under appreciated masterpiece, and I'm sad that people in the US haven't embraced it. But it's doing very well over seas, so that's great. I hope that one day, we may see a sequel. But until then, I'll stick with the ERB novels. Thanks again for reading!