John Carter: A surprising gem that shines bright and true5/10
Star Wars, Avatar, and John Carter. That's the cinema progression although by now everyone knows that the John Carter books came first and inspired both Lucas and Cameron. As a devotee of the books -- I appreciated Star Wars and Avatar, but neither produced the level of excitement and reader/viewer loyalty that Edgar Rice Burroughs did with his vivid and unforgettable tales of John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Barsoom.
So what has Andrew Stanton given us?
Anwer: A gem that shines bright and true with a light all its own. Stanton has taken the grandmaster's story but he's made it his own and it's fresh and emotionally stirring in ways that are unexpected and make you want to see it a second time, and soon. The gem is not without a few rough edges -- but the core brilliance is unmistakable and undeniable.
Stanton is a subtle and sophisticated storyteller with a Pixarian's understanding of how to build characters that stay with you. Whereas Cameron in Avatar was content to extract the simple essence of the Burroughsian pulp narrative and just "go with it", Stanton keeps enough of that to keep the material recognizable but constructs characters that, in deft and certain strokes, emerge as fully realized beings who engage us and draw us in to their stories in ways that exceed what his predecessors Burroughs, Lucas, and Cameron were able to do. The result is a richer, character driven experience that transcends the dear sweet old pulpy fiber on which it is based and becomes something grander, richer, and more satisfying.
A word about how the film differs from what you're seeing in trailers: The promotion promises spectacle and action and there is plenty of that; but the promotion also suggests that the film will be a kind of childishly simple, woodenly executed mashup of questionable seriousness featuring awkward performances and cartoonish characterization while the film itself is almost the inverse of that--a thoughtful, finely tune spectacle that is a feast of imaginative transport and whose few flaws flow from the fact that it's a three hour epic that plays in two hours and twelve minutes.
Taylor Kitsch is convincing and natural and I never thought I'd be saying that, based on the promotion. Lynn Collins is luminous and elevates fully to the level of the "incomparable" Princess of Helium -- genuinely beautiful and strong of will and heart. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as Sola; Mark Strong as the delicious villain Matai Shang -- the cast is without exception strong. The special effects are state o the art and seamless -- and the music by Michael Giachinno deserves special mention: haunting, unique, and uniquely suited to the material, and the editing by Eric Zumbrunnen seamlessly supports the narrative.
The "flaws" amount to quibbles: The film feels lean and compact at 2 hours and 12 minutes and feels as if it could benefit greatly from 10 additional minutes which could have been used profitably to better set up the moment when John Carter and Dejah Thoris "close the deal" on their love, and clarify some story points that are there -- but could be highlighted more. Another beat of John Carter's life among the Tharks, implying a passage of time, would cause John Carter's later knowledge of the Tharks and their culture to make more sense (as it is now he seems to pick it up in a matter of days and as audience we never see where that knowledge comes from ). Another beat of John Carter absorbing the new world he finds himself in, and implicitly comparing it to what he left behind, would be welcome and would strengthen the impact we would feel when he makes that choice. But these minor points should not distract for the overall brilliance with which Stanton has executed a challenging assignment.
This is a film that bears watching more than once, and is complex and nuanced enough that subsequent viewings will no doubt reveal new treasures and clarify the minor rough edges -- yet it is also compelling and moving on an immersive first viewing in the theater. Perhaps the best indication of that is the fact that, in spite of my supposed knowledge of and sensitivity to film structure -- I was taken by surprise when it ended and was in no way ready for it to end. Could the full two hours have gone by that fast? How? And as I sit here writing about it the next morning, if there were an opportunity to go back and see it again tonight, I would do so without hesitation and, quibbles aside, that's a simple but ultimately profound recommendation.
A final thought: Like everyone, I've got plenty of things going on in my life and my world, distracting things, things that makes me worry, things that drag my mind out of a movie when I'm watching it and back into my world. Not one little tiny bit of that intruded into this movie. I was transported and when it was over I couldn't believe that was it -- I thought there was at least another 45 minutes owed to the audience. On a visceral level, without trying to overthink it -- that says a lot about what Andrew Stanton has accomplished, building on the foundation of the grandmaster Edgar Rice Burroughs.