Now before we begin I feel it’s important to say that I am not familiar with the John Carter books but I do recognise that they played a large role in influencing sci-fi for 100 years, from Superman to Avatar. It feels right that the film is coming out 100 years after the first book, A Princess of Mars, was released and the fact that Andrew Stanton, the director of one of my favourite sci-fi films WALL-E, was making his live action debut with this film made me all the more excited. Which is why I’m glad to say that I had a great time with this film, unlike so many others, but there are still a few problems with it.
I feel first that I should start off with the problems so that I can save the best parts of the film for last. The main problem of the film is the main villains, Dominic West as Sab Than and Mark Strong as Matai Shang. Granted, West and Strong give good performances in their roles, especially Strong who is always great as villains, hell he even gave a good performance in the atrocious Ridley Scott version of Robin Hood, but the way the villains are written is horrible. They are not interesting characters, I didn’t know what motivated them to do what they do aside from power and Sab Than didn’t seem like much of a threat. The only reason why Matai Shang is a slightly better villain is that he’s in the background as an advisor to everything and that’s an interesting idea, sort of like a more extreme version of Grima Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings but the poor writing lets the character down while Sab Than is completely forgettable as a villain.
There is also the fact that some of the performances are bad. You can see that Taylor Kitsch is trying really hard to give a good performance and while he does a great performance in a physical sense, he is not good with the dialogue scenes with him just coming across as boring. Thomas Haden Church is also pretty bland and boring as Tal Hajus which really makes him seem like an annoyance rather than a threat. But by far the worst offender is Daryl Sabara who is horrendous as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Every line delivery is wrong, every expression is wrong, the emotions he gives are wrong. If he was in the film any longer, I would have had to give this film a negative review just because of how much I hated his performance.
Finally there is the 3D. Now I went to see this film in IMAX 3D and even then I found the 3D to be horrific. I meant it’s Clash of the Titans level bad 3D. In IMAX alone when I took off my 3D glasses the film was fine because there was hardly any 3D in the film at all and the 3D that was in there made the film look flat. There have only been 3 films which have had really good 3D (Avatar, Tron: Legacy and Hugo), all other times the 3D is awful. Any film which hasn’t been filmed in 3D should not be in 3D and this is a prime example of just how badly retrofitting films into 3D can go.
However, there are more positive aspects to John Carter than negative. First of which being the fact that the film looks incredible. The CGI effects are outstanding, the movements of the Tharks are handled greatly, the on-location shooting and the cinematography is just gorgeous. The action scenes in the film are also incredible with the stunt work by Kitsch being absolutely outstanding, especially in the fight scene between him and the army of Tharks and the CG used in these action scenes is outstanding. Finally, the designs of the creatures in Mars is incredible, with the Tharks and the martian dog being the best designed.
Secondly, there is some good acting in the film. James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds give brilliant low key, comedic performances. I really enjoyed Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morten as Tars Tarkas and Sola respectively and I will address them in more detail later on when I talk about the Tharks. But by far the best performance in the film is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars. She gives a great physical performance letting you know her sorrow over what’s happening to Mars through her facial expression and eyes. Plus she does a great job with the action scenes in the film and even plays off the fact that you don’t expect her to be as good a fighter as she is. The physical and mental strength of the character makes her one of the best female characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time and the performance by Collins seals the deal.
Then there are the Tharks. I loved the Tharks in this film. The culture of the Tharks is fascinating and I really wanted to know more about the Tharks, their mating rituals, how children are raised, how leaders are chosen, how they worship their God, all that stuff. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton showed just how deep the Tharks can go through their performances and the way their characters were written. Dafoe’s portrayal of Tars Tarkas was incredible, the mix of intrigue over Carter, concern for the well being of his daughter and his role as leader of the Tharks was brilliantly handled through the subtle changes in Dafoe’s voice and Morton brings a great depth to her character Sola, the religious jabbering at the temple, the concern over her father and the kind nature she shows to Carter make her a very interesting character.
Finally, there’s the action and plot. Now I’ve put these 2 together because of the way they have influenced sci-fi for the past 100 years. The action of the film is incredible with some stand-out set piece moments, see John Carter fighting the non-Thark green martians and the final battle in Helium, and, if it was written that way in the book, the fight against the white apes was a clear inspiration for the Rancor in Return of the Jedi. The plot meanwhile is standard fare, but only because of how much it inspired sci-fi. I understood that and as such I got really invested in the plot, I cared about whether or not Barsoom would be destroyed, I wanted to know who/what the Therns were and I cannot say any more because I don’t want to spoil the film, see it for yourself.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed John Carter, sure it had its fair share of problems but I still enjoyed it. It’s clear that this has been a labour of love from Andrew Stanton and he works really well in live action, I had a blast with John Carter and if you like sci-fi, I recommend you check it out, if only to see the inspiration for some of sci-fi’s greatest tales on the big screen.
My Rating: 3.5/5
P.S. In regards to the title change from John Carter of Mars to John Carter, I don’t mind it as I feel this is a film about John Carter becoming John Carter of Mars, which he only does at the very end of the film so the title change works. I don’t buy for a second that Andrew Stanton changed it because of studio pressure, that explanation just reeks of B.S.