It was a unique movie-going experience finally seeing John Carter, a film I had been passionately awaiting as a avid fan of the source material. Last June, while waiting in an airport, I decided to buy Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic A Princess of Mars, as I had heard Andrew Stanton was adapting it. I knew nothing of the series, but it was not long before I had fallen in love with the world and the characters that inhabited it. After finishing the book within the duration of the flight, I quickly searched out and read several sequels to the original and became an obsessive fan.
Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is a dream come true, not only for me but for all who have waited for the century-old series to finally make it to the big screen. Many filmmakers have attempted to make this film over the years, starting all the way back in the 1930s. While the film’s history may define the term, development-hell, the final product shows no sign of struggle. It is a beautifully imagined and realized fantasy epic. It is at once old-fashioned in its sensibilities, and modern in its cinematic techniques.
The film, based on Burroughs’ first novel, focuses on John Carter, a confederate soldier who feels lost on earth. Just as he is at his lowest point, Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, finds himself on Mars. The Mars depicted in this film is in the middle of a civil war between two city-states. There is a interplanetary love-story, and nine-foot green aliens. This may sound familiar, as countless sci-fi and fantasy properties have been directly influenced by Carter and his adventures on Barsoom.
One of Andrew Stanton’s biggest challenges approaching this film was trying to make it original again. And I have to say, this is one of the biggest surprises for me. The film never feels derivative or even familiar. Stanton’s approach was to make it as a historical epic, rather than a straight fantasy film. It takes its visual cues from the classic epics of yesteryear, with a score beautiful score by Michael Giacchino that harkens back to Lawrence of Arabia.
John Carter is Stanton’s live-action directorial debut, and it proves that true cinematic talent transcends mediums. He is confident, skilled and at times quite clever in his directorial choices. That being said, his experience at Pixar clearly has its benefits as several of the central characters, as well as hundreds of extras, are CGI creations. One of the central relationships in the film, between Carter and his Thark companion Tars Tarkas, would simply fall flat if it weren’t for Stanton’s understanding of animation.
It would be unfair to not comment on the negative aspects of the film, as the story, at times, becomes confusing for the uninitiated. The script, written by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michel Chabon, straddles the line between great and confusing. Some scenes become dialogue-heavy, in an attempt to explain the detailed history of Barsoom and its inhabitants. That being said, this did not hinder my enjoyment of the film, as each dialogue heavy scene is performed and shot beautifully.
At the heart of this film is a love-story, between John Carter and the princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. She is played by the relatively unknown Lynn Collins and, is not your typical Disney princess. She is intelligent, beautiful and just as strong as the hero himself. And beyond the smart decisions to strengthen the character of Dejah Thoris, is the fantastic performance by Collins. She forces the audience to fall in love with her character just as Carter does.
There was no doubt before this film that Stanton was one of the great storytellers working in film today. John Carter only proves this further, and it should be no shock to anyone that this film works on almost every level. It is a true shame that the marketing could not excite audiences on the level that it deserves. Stanton’s John Carter is a beautiful, exciting and at times genius film.