Lauren: Before Pandora became more than the name of a box thanks to a little film called Avatar, before Star Wars became a space opera deserving of more than just cultish, nerd admiration (I’ll include Episodes 1-3 for Zac), there was a man named John Carter who found himself fighting for the inhabitants of Mars. Yep, Mars; just because we’re willing to explore other planets doesn’t mean we’re ready to go gallivanting around the far corners of the universe.
The films mentioned above were used for a reason, both by myself and the marketing team that chose to throw the names out there during the TV spots flooding the channels lately. Eye roll worthy, sure, but one can assume this was the route taken because there is no way this film is not going to be compared to Avatar and Star Wars for its characters, locations, and simple story of developing love in the face of good vs. evil. Just don’t forget, John Carter did it first, crying out “seniority” from the pages of the stories from the early decades of the 20th century.
Zac: As someone who doesn’t watch commercials/trailers for films I wasn’t able to assess these comparisons visually, but I couldn’t avoid the through line in print. I had heard a lot about how it was going to be derivative and that ‘John Carter is going to be terrible because it looks like Attack of the Clones,’ but I certainly feel like this isn’t the case with the film. John Carter felt fresh to me. It’s weird, unique, and has a lot of original ideas and visuals going for it, even if “every” sci-fi/fantasy film apparently took something from this film’s source material. Director Andrew Stanton blazes his own path and creates an engaging and thought provoking universe that we only get to see the tip of and makes me want to know the more about the connections among this film’s solar system.
Anyone’s fears about the film’s world building feeling cheap, played out, or have already made up their mind about it will be pleasantly surprised, but how well do you think the film played beyond jumping this big hurdle?
Lauren: The first time I saw the TV spot that mentioned the comparison was actually after I saw the film, but I thought the visual comparisons were pretty obvious upon viewing for me. Some of the character designs and locations felt a little familiar in many ways (though at least everyone seemed to be dressed in the famous Princess Leia slave outfit and not just one female), as well as plot points, and there was even a moment during this air vehicular chase scene that I was hoping someone would hit a tree or get knocked off, falling to their death while belting out a final Wilhelm scream. Even with the comparisons aside, I can agree with John Carter providing a really interesting world that I was sad to see go when the film ended. (“What happens next!?” I dramatically cried.) Not only that, but I really loved the storyline that actually takes place in a different time and place than that on Mars.
With that said, the biggest problem I had with this film was the simplicity of John Carter himself. I really couldn’t get behind him as a character, even as they tried to develop depth by spending time awkwardly flashing back to the life he lost, and it was only during his moments as “Virginia” (see the movie to get the hilarious importance) and when he was interacting with others that I cared about him because of how much I loved these other characters. John Carter was just all: “my cave of gold this, my cave of gold that;” I even got so annoyed with him talking about this that I started to hate the way Taylor Kitsch read the lines involving gold. Though his work on Friday Night Lights provides evidence that Kitsch was chosen to star for more than just his physical godliness, a lot of this seemed to lack here for me. Don’t speak, John Carter, just fight.
Zac: I didn’t take issue with Kitsch’s interpretation of John Carter, but will agree that the character’s arc and romantic pursuits relied very heavy on the archetypes of a hero. Luckily, I am a sucker for Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and will pretty much forgive it at every turn. Sure it would have been great for the character to have a bit more depth, and I think the character has much more to it on Earth, but when he was on Mars I was able to just kind of go with the flow as Carter kind of gets whisked around the planet. He doesn’t get much time to think, he is always on the run or chasing something down, but Kitsch sold me on it and more than handled the action bits. I will say the “gold cave” dialogue you are referencing in the third act certainly felt out of placed and forced, but that was one of the few times I was taken out of the film.
Speaking of the action, I thought the set pieces were all really good to great with one in particular blowing me away. The set piece in question is a one of many battles that is beautifully edited together with flashes of Carter’s past, and everything is perfect. From Michael Giacchino’s score, the choreographed action, the excellent CGI, and the heart pulsing editing I was an awe of the moment; and it was made even better by the fact that Woola was involved. Oh Woola, there wasn’t enough of you.
Lauren: Really? I actually hated that hulking out moment and thought it was overdone, thanks again, in large part, to the cuts to the past. These are the moments in which they tried to give him depth with his traumatic backstory fueling his anger… At least I think that is what was happening. Not quite sure. All I know is that if you want me to give any worth to these scenes as something that fuels this character, don’t have him all awkwardly looking at Lynn Collins’ princess like he’s childishly moon-eyed just moments before because it completely undermines the moment that follows.
Now that you mention that though, I am not really sure if I can pinpoint one scene as my favorite, but I did love so many elements throughout that even with these major problems, I still had a lot of fun throughout, as I did with Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia. Mark Strong and Collins were both high points for me in their acting, Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and this ridiculously disproportional “dog” provided some great humor to keep the story light and playful at times (and I mean this as a compliment), and as much as certain aspects reminded me of other films, they were still enough their own here that I was able to look past the films that came before. And that mechanical, moving city! Now that was cool.
Zac: The visuals and effects were certainly top notch and I loved the weirdness and art design on display at every turn. The film was apparently very expensive, and not a penny was wasted, as the film looks spectacular. From the Tharks, to the beautiful cityscapes, and the Barsoom art design; the film was technically exceptional and I would like to shake the hand of the costume designer of Lynn Collins’ wardrobe.
John Carter is a film I like quite a bit and I look forward to future viewings, as I think not having to acclimate to this bizarre world will allow you to just dive in and enjoy the film instead of having to settle into it. Stanton did a great job for his first live action feature; maybe not quite as good as his Pixar counterpart Brad Bird, but I hope we get more adventures in this universe as I am more than intrigued at the possibilities.
Lauren: Though I cannot share your higher grade due to problems with Carter, I can agree on my excitement for the world and hope that we get to see it again. If anything, just so I can laugh whenever they say they have to save Helium. It is a location here, but I couldn’t help chuckle at the idea of them fighting a war to be able to have high-pitched voices for days to come. And if it continues, maybe then they will explain how a “dog” that looks like a giant toad can run so freaking fast…
Lauren: B- Follow @BewareOfTrees