John Carter 3D (Movie Review)

From Academy Award–winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes John Carter – a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). John Carter is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.


John Carter has finally arrived in theaters after many previous attempts to hit the big-screen which never came to fruition.  Legendary animation director Bob Clampett wanted to make a feature length animated version, Disney tried to make it in the 80s with Tom Cruise in the starring role and John McTiernan directing, and years later Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Konran, and lastly even Jon Favreau all tried as well.  John Carter of Mars seemed be doomed to never become a live action movie because of the extensive special effects needed for the aliens and for the Mars landscape.  After Favreau’s attempt failed, Stanton let Disney know that they should buy the rights again so that he or someone else could take it on.  After his earlier success as the director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E to name just a few, Stanton got his wish and he was hired to make his first live action film.

The film’s many challenges would have daunted many directors as there’s the effects, the locations, and the fact that John Carter of Mars has influenced so many movies, that despite being the trailblazer before them, it now seems like it’s the follower.  In this new era of  science fiction movies from Star Wars to Avatar (both of whom borrowed elements from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books), Stanton had to plot a way to remain true to the books yet freshen it up for modern audiences.  As he said, “The view of science, future technology, and fantasy is very reflective of how people understood the world when the books were written (the first was published in 1912).  I think that part of the appeal and charm of these books – and of these characters – is that they are not of our time; they’re of the post-Civil War era.  I wanted Mars, as well as Earth, to have a bit of that flavor, to place it in its own category and not make it possible to even accidentally compare it to other, more current science-fiction or fantasy films.”

Does he succeed?  For the most part the answer is yes, but not without some bumps along the way.  The movie opens with a ton of exposition, names, and descriptions which might be a little too much for audiences unfamiliar with the book.  There’s a lot of setting up to do since Disney is hoping that this will be the first movie of a new franchise.  We meet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) twice, first as a dead man in a clever framing device that bookends the film, then as an ex-Confederate soldier who lost a lot more personally than just the war and as a result he has no interest in supporting any other cause or fight.  Now out west in Arizona, Carter is searching for gold when he is captured by Union soldiers and taken to meet Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) who wants Carter to work for him.

In a fun sequence, Carter continually to tries to escape and we start to see what kind of man Carter is.  His independent and stubborn streak may not make him a model prisoner but it does make for an excellent future leader of Mars.  When a firefight breaks out between the union soldiers holding Carter and some Indians, Carter gets caught in the cross-fire along with Powell who’s is shot off his horse.  Risking his own life, Carter returns to save his one time captor and they make their way to a nearby cave to hide.  Inside, Carter realizes that the cave is full of the gold he’s been searching for, but his joy is short-lived when a man appears out of nowhere and tries to kill him. Carter is too quick for the man and manages to shoot the man first.  Hearing the dying man whispering words to a medallion, Carter takes the medallion and is instantly transported to Mars and the movie finally kicks into gear.

Once on Mars (although its inhabitants call it Barsoom), Carter discovers that the difference in gravity has made him stronger, faster, and able to jump huge distances with a single bound.  He is quicky found by a Tharks scouting party led by a four armed alien Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) who witnesses Carter’s giant leap to escape and orders his men to back off.  While Tars takes Carter back to his people to show off his abilities, elsewhere a beautiful princess name Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is informed by her grandfather Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) that in order to save thier people, she will have to marry the tyrant Sab Than (Dominic West).  Than is the Prince of Zodanga, and his goal of worldwide domination has been helped along by the appearance of Matai Shang (Mark Strong), leader of the mystical Holy Therns who has given him some powerful technology known as the “ninth ray” which obliterates anything in its path.

It doesn’t take long before Carter sees the princess falling to her death and he jumps to save her and ends up fighting Sab Than and his men who are dumbfounded by the appearance of the superhuman stranger.  After rescuing the princess, Tars forces Carter to join the Tharks’ side after making him choose between freedom and Dejah who is still in their control.  Now caught in another world’s civil war against his wishes, Carter learns of an ancient power source that can end the conflict and restore peace.  Of course there’s complications along the way including gladiatorial games, an unwelcome wedding, and a clash between three armies, but nothing comes easy. Carter has enough trouble as it is, but it doesn’t help that Matai Shang has the ability to shape shift into any person he wants which makes it a lot trickier to beat him.  With the fate of Barsoom on his shoulders, Carter will have to find a way to save Dejah and end the civil war once and for all.

I enjoyed John Carter but it takes too long to get into the thick of things and yet, it also feels like Stanton tried to cram too much into it.  If this does end up being a franchise, it would have been better to spread out a lot of this plot across several movies.  Instead, there’s so much exposition that it all flies by so fast that most people probably won’t have a clue what the difference is between a Thern and a Thark unless they’ve read the books.  In fact, the whole subplot of the Holy Therns is under-cooked since they are introduced without hardly any explanation and seem to have more power than anyone yet have others like Sab Than wield it on their behalf.  And speaking of technology, for as advanced as these Martian races seem to be with their flying airships and mobile cities, why are they still using swords?  Other than the the whole “ninth ray” energy tech (which also is under-developed) these advanced people should be doing a lot better than swords and spears.

But then maybe that’s part of the charm of John Carter.  This hybrid of westerns, science fiction, and creature features works despite all of the reservations I’ve stated.  Part of that is because of the fantastic special effects, but mainly due to the actors involved.  Taylor Kitsch is a great choice for John Carter and he handles both the action and the dramatic beats well.  Willem Dafoe is great as Tars Tarkas as he infuses the character with gravitas, emotion, and utter ruthlessness at times.  In his capable hands, Tars is a fully realized character who’s worthy enough to join the pantheon of other great digital characters like Gollum and Caesar.  Dominic West does another nice turn as a villain who is very similar to the one he played in 300, but he does do them well.  James Purefoy doesn’t have a large part but he does a great job with what he’s got.  As good as all of them are in the movie, the film’s secret weapon is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris.  Collins brings not only her stunning beauty to the part, but she also makes sure that she is more than a damsel in distress.  In fact one of the film’s humorous callbacks was from a scene where Carter tries to protect her only to discover that he should be behind her once she gets her hand on a sword.  The romance between Carter and her seems to move pretty fast, but honestly, who could blame him?

For those of you wondering about how the 3D looked, I can say that this is the best post-conversion that I’ve seen.  I really wish that it had been filmed in 3D because this would have looked incredible in native 3D.  I saw the movie in RealD 3D and I thought it looked really good.  This isn’t the kind of 3D movie that has stuff flying out of the screen at you but it does add a welcome sense of depth which works great for the vistas of Mars and for horse chases in Monument Valley.  Should you spend the extra money on the 3D version?  That’s depends on what you are looking for in a 3D film.  If you want all of the crazy stuff coming at you and expect that for your hard earned money then don’t spend the extra money.  If you want to enjoy the sprawling vistas of Mars with some extra depth, then I would recommend a 3D screening.  If you do go to a 3D screening you might as well also splurge and see in in IMAX 3D if you can!

Disney has sunk a lot of money into this movie and I hope despite the unfortunate marketing of the movie and the mystifying and undeserved negativity directed towards it by some before it was even released, that it will overcome those challenges and succeed at the box office. I hope I’ll get to see more of them where they can continue to improve on what worked and fix what didn’t. One part that definitely worked was Michael Giacchino’s score which is one of his best and I can’t wait to see the movie again, partly just to hear the score again. His work never disappoints but this time he’s really outdone himself and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a nomination for it later. We don’t get to see too many movies with this kind of an epic feel to them so I really hope audiences will give it a chance despite it’s flaws.  The movie starts slowly but keeps building momentum until it’s moving like a freight train at the end.  The final reveal at the end of the movie finally explains the dual story-lines and it’s extremely well done and provides a nice satisfying climax to the movie along with its rightful title at the end of the movie – John Carter of Mars because at this point he’s earned it.

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5 Responses to “John Carter 3D (Movie Review)”

  1. Aaron Neuwirth

    Well put, I pretty much agree with your thoughts on this one.

  2. Sean Ferguson

    Thanks Aaron! When will your review be up?

  3. Aaron Neuwirth

    Should go up tonight for Why So Blu. I’m hoping to see the film again this weekend too, before I do the podcast episode for it.

  4. Brian White

    Very impressive review here Sean!!!
    I think I pretty much agree with everything here.
    My final score would have been a 3.5, but that’s just me.

  5. Sean Ferguson

    Thanks Brian! Up until halfway through the movie my score would have been a 3 but fortunately the second half was a lot better.