Friday, March 02, 2012

Meanwhile at the movies... Barsoom Withdrawl - JOHN CARTER REVIEW

My dearest readers,

 I've just recently returned from Barsoom, and the following are my accounts of the journey...
I Was lucky my wife scored preview screening passes to JOHN CARTER (in 3D) last night, as I'd been anxious to see the film after first hearing about it. An Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi book series, that inspired nearly every major sci-fi property I've loved, helmed by a Pixar director?!? One can only hope something of that pedigree lives up to a fraction of the promise. And since it's a Disney movie, they've been advertising the hell out of it for some time, but perplexingly, the ad campaign did little to excite anyone about the film. So are they playing things close, and hoping to blow people's minds when they get a look at what they've put together, or was it a creative misfire, that feels as empty as the PR (made even more lackluster by the endless derivative contemporary creations; Star Wars, Avatar, etc, that have stolen all the ideas Burroughs offered up in 1912)??
Growing up a Star Wars and comic book fanatic, and comic and genre nut to this day, you can see how I might be frenzied to find out sooner than later, just what awaits on the mysterious 3D live action CG enhanced Andrew Stanton Barsoom (Mars). So, tonight was the night I'd find out, more than a week before the release, and I couldn't have been happier!

So, what's the real story?
Does it disappoint, or deliver?
 The short answer?
John Carter delivers in spades.
It is a truly great sci-fi motion picture, full of heart, life, and creativity. A sci-fi geeks dream, and one of the finer genre films I've had the pleasure of seeing.
The level of craft here, from the production first and foremost, is impressive and appropriately epic and nuanced, to the story and scripting, which is smartly honed and resonant, this adaptation is built with the care and passion we've come to expect from Pixar, who deliver technically astounding and emotionally rewarding films. And though Stanton was working outside Pixar here, and in live action, thankfully he was able to successfully bring that aesthetic with him. And just like Pixar films, the story plays wide, without sacrificing the maturity and heft required to engage a mature audience, or the fun, spirit, and magic to enchant younger viewers (and us big kids). Unlike Pixar though, it is not a movie for children, but firmly in the Star War motion picture blockbuster wheelhouse, of a pre-teen core demographic. A pulpy adventure tale with fantastic feats of brawn and bravado, plucky princesses, hostile aliens, and fabulous creatures and tech. The type of movie making that millions fell in love with decades ago in a galaxy far far away, but seems increasingly hard to find, on this scale, in this day and age.
Perhaps my references to Star Wars and Pixar are a bit heavy, especially since this film offers more then either of those quantities. Unlike Pixar, it's of course live action, and dares to dream a more straight forward and tonally advanced action story. There is death, and blood, and consequences to the action, and some mildly unsettling depictions of a brutal alien society. And while it may traffic in some of the best things the Star Wars franchise had to offer, namely endearing and fascinating alien characters and settings (Woola, will certainly steal many hearts, and capture zillions of youngsters impressionable minds), the story also skews a bit more towards fantasy, and with it's late 19th century settings, it has western elements too. So yes, it offers the best of those two amazing and beloved creations, but also more. No small feat.
That's not to say it's a perfect work, or that there aren't some things that are lacking. Some of the casting or directing in the live action department could've used some more spirit or punch, as most performances skew to being fairly reserved, at contrast to the plots strong emotional themes. The humanoid characters don't quite go all out and effortlessly live and breath their roles, perhaps with the exception of Bryan Cranston (Tyler Kitsch, our leading man, is very good though). And I especially found Mark Strong's villain, and his fellow Therns, to be the weak point of the whole production. From the design and costuming of the mysterious god like characters, to the depiction of some of their key tech, just seemed very weak and garishly staged (whenever they're on screen, I feel as though I'm looking at a goofy movie character). All this making for a bit of a disconnect from the otherwise pretty pitch perfect story and production. And then also, while fairly good at a couple key scenes, the score was invisible and sorely lacking otherwise. I know I harp on this aspect time and again, and admittedly it's a pet peeve of mine, but music and sound is as important to a film as any other element, and both are at best serviceable here. Also, most of the action scenes could have played out a bit more, or had a bit more heft to them. While there are quite a few, like with the acting, things could've stood to be amped up a bit more here.
Also, as with most modern big budget films, especially ones with such huge effect driven scope, I should touch on the special effects, and the 3D. Both are excellent. The 3D isn't of the level I remember Avatar (still the high water mark here), but it's perhaps the next best I've seen, and the effects are seamless, with Stanton relying heavily on live settings and practical filming whenever possible to good effect. The result being, though it's not over the top otherworldly, it is one that you completely buy into. I should also mention, as I said up top with the lackluster ad campaign, I also wasn't too drawn to the designs I'd seen of the tech and world depicted, however, after getting a closer look, I came to quite like most of what they did here.
In my short summation of the film up front, I gave it pretty high praise. It is a finely tuned script and production of cosmic proportions. I'm not sure where John Carter stands among my all time favorites, but it certainly ranks up there, and to compare it to something somewhat recent, that went on to do huge box office, would be the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. While I loved that movie, I certainly had my problems with it also, but I'd say much more so then this. Or in contrast to another recent global box office destroying sci-fi film, Avatar, which was long on world immersive craft, but very short on story, John Carter leaps bounds over it creatively. There's more I could praise about John Carter, and likely a bit more I could criticize, but ultimately, I loved the movie. It tells an epic, original (if familiar, or rather in spite of it's many familiar elements) story, with amazing visuals, and fun characters. As I said in the title to the review, I really do miss my short time on the red planet of Barsoom, with all it's fantastic creatures and sights, and just like John Carter, I want to go back again, and as soon as possible (here's hoping we get the sequels). That's the magic of movies and the amazing worlds they can take us to, and John Carter offers plenty of both.


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - John Carter is not to be missed on the big screen.
Faithfully yours,


clayholio said...

Every time I see the trailer, I just keep imagining the pilot from Airplane! asking that kid, "Do you like movies about gladiators?"

But I'm curious about "John Carter," and I've got a free movie ticket laying around. It does look much better than "Ghost Rider..."

Jason Martin said...

Lol, yes, I guarantee it's better than any recent Nick Cage movie, flaming skull or otherwise! ;)

Though can you imagine Nick Cage in the role of John Carter?!?! The mind reels...