March 8, 2012


There’s a special place in my heart for big, bold adventure movies like John Carter.  In an age where detached irony seems to permeate every recess of our lives, John Carter throws out names like “Zodongan”, “Therns”, “Tharks”, and “Barsoom” and doesn’t blink an eye.  This is the world of John Carter and co-writer/director Andrew Stanton mostly lets the world open up at its own pace.  The conflicts are laid out cleanly, the lead characters are compelling, and eventually you’re not wondering about the difference between Zodongans and Heliumites and how a guy from 19th-century Earth was drawn into their conflict.  You’re too enraptured by the majesty of the red planet.  You’re also too busy laughing at the good-natured humor and being sucked into the exhilarating action.

John Carter starts off by introducing us to the civil war on Barsoom (the planet we call “Mars”) between the Zodongans and the Heliumites.  The leader of the Zodongans, Sab Than (Dominic West) has acquired an unstoppable weapons given to him from a seemingly all-powerful race known as the Therns.  Heliumite princess and scientist Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is trying to unlock the secret to the Zodongans’ power before she’s married off to Sab Than so that Helium can form a truce between the nations, although the “truce” is really more of a “Please stop killing us and we’ll do whatever you want.  Here’s our smart and beautiful princess to sweeten the deal.”  Swept up into this planet-wide conflict is former Confederate soldier John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who wants no more part of war and simply wants the riches of a cave of gold he found on Earth.  Unfortunately for Mr. Carter, he encounters a Thern on Earth, gets transported to Mars, and begins an odyssey filled with strange creatures (like the six-limbed, violent Tharks) and fantastical vehicles that can “travel on light”.


While we may giggle a bit at the names, Stanton hooks us with visual spectacle and grand conflict.  Before the exposition on Mars threatens to lose us, we’re moved to Earth and meet Carter.  It’s a bit of a gamble to show the spectacle and then hit us with the familiar rather than vice-versa, but it’s the pattern of John Carter‘s excellent pacing.  Before the movie starts feeling like Dune, we get to see Carter be a badass, get some great laughs as he tries to escape from a U.S. colonel (Bryan Cranston), and when Carter lands on Mars, the humor eases us back into the strange stuff like his capture by the Tharks.  John Carter manages these tonal transitions with tremendous skill throughout the story.  One scene can have John Carter feeling helpless and trapped, and the next scene can have him paling around with Woola, his faithful, super-fast, ugly-yet-adorable dog-like creature.

It’s a masterful balancing act where the pacing, visuals, plot, and characters have to work in sync to transport the audience to worlds within worlds.  This isn’t simply a modern-day guy hanging out with one alien species.  It’s a conflict with lots of players and the movie puts them in a world worthy of that conflict.  Furthermore, John Carter isn’t simply a world-saving cipher.  The characters are archetypes and some are more fleshed out than others (translated to English, Sab Than probably means “Bad Guy”), but Carter’s backstory has a meaningful tie to his situation on Mars.  Granted, the subtext is simplistic and thematically there’s hardly anything to chew on, but sometimes painting in the broad strokes of “Honor”, “Love”, “Redemption” fits the bill.


While the script has no problem with going broad, the excellent cast manages to bring their characters to life by making them more than Hero, Love-Interest, Chieftain, etc.  I believe in John Carter because Kitsch sells his character’s reluctance, pain, bewilderment, and moral code (and thankfully, John Carter is not “the chosen one who must answer the call”).  Collins plays Dejah without the interminable “tough chick” clichés.  Yes, she knows how to wield a sword and the character is really smart, but Collins’ is unafraid to show Dejah’s vulnerable side, which is essential to strengthening the character’s determination.  For the most part, John Carter does a solid job of showing that John and Dejah are equals, although he has to save her from plummeting to her death one time too many.

On the motion-capture side, the performances are even more crucial to making us believe in the Tharks.  Like almost everything in John Carter, the Tharks are silly at first glance, and it takes strong writing and acting to push us past the appearances.  Willem Dafoe is great as the Thark leader Tars Tarkas, a character who has to constantly hide his compassion among his combative people.  The digital artists do their part, but it takes actors like Dafoe to make the character more than CGI.


John Carter is a visual effects extravaganza, but Stanton captivates us not only with ground-breaking effects, but by pulling everything together as a cohesive whole.  It’s not enough to simply show John Carter zipping around on airships.  The airship has to be part of a culture and the culture has to come alive through its representative characters.  This is what good epic stories do.  They take the time to set up the world and the characters, and only then does the action come alive, as opposed to one CGI thing fighting another CGI thing.  And when the action in John Carter comes alive, it’s absolutely spectacular.  The 3D doesn’t get in the way, provides a nice depth of field, and the world is so big that an IMAX screening would be worth your time.  John Carter the kind of visual feast that only a movie theater can provide.

However, the film is like a Faberge egg.  It’s beautiful and well-crafted, but it can shatter if you mishandle it for a second.  As I mentioned earlier, John Carter is a balancing act and the film tumbles badly as it comes to the end.  For over two hours, John Carter moves at the best pace to suit the story, but the ending moves in flash forward to the point where a series of big events become so condensed that they’re ludicrous.  You can almost see the Disney executive off to the side tapping his watch, and saying “Time to wrap it up.”

It’s a jarring and unworthy finish to a vivid and memorable movie-going experience.  John Carter is a swashbuckling tale (Carter even uses swords instead of guns) that measures up to and in some ways exceeds the vision of the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ 1917 novel, A Princess of Mars.  Andrew Stanton has taken an old-fashioned adventure and given it a high-tech body.  John Carter is visually stunning, thoughtfully constructed, and most importantly, the film is grand, goofy, old-fashioned fun.

Rating: B+


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  • Hilter

    Is Taylor Kitcsh fucking gritty as shit in it though?

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  • Mo

    Glad to hear you liked it, Matt. When I saw Faraci give this a tumbs-up I knew things were looking good.

    Unfortunately things don’t look good for the box office (where was the kick-ass Tron marketing campaign when it was needed, huh?), and prospects for a sequel look bleak, but hopfully Stanton, Kitsch, & co. can look back at this flick 10 years from now and say it’s a film they’re all proud of.

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  • Grand Simon

    Saw it yesterday. I loved it — great adventure story, epic scale, really funny, great casting (everyone looked ‘right’ for their parts IMO) and just generally great fun. I had written it off after the first couple of trailers came out, but I still went to see it (because of Andrew Stanton), and I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a pretty great movie. Go see it!

  • iris

    first posiive review i have seen for this film

    • Michael

      JoBlo has a pretty good review on this movie too. I think they gave it an eight out of ten if I’m not mistaken.

  • rocky

    The film was a blast. I pray folk will give it a chance. This film based on the classic that inspired so much of the sci/fi we enjoy today deserves it.

    Retro sci/fi pulp the whole family can enjoy.

  • WEV

    good to hear positive things about this film. Could be the little gem of 2012?

  • Warpcrafter

    A jarring and unworthy ending? Wrong! It’s called a thrilling climax, idiot, and it was pulled off perfectly. A+!!!

  • tweek

    i´ve seen the movie…absolutly bad shit
    Good: Special Effects
    Not so good: Story, Kitsch, Screenplay, Directing, 3D Effect.

    Boring and brainless
    Even Star Wars E1&2 were better movies…

  • Jones

    Wasn’t actually as bad as I thought it would be when my date picked this. The terms make sense as you go along, even though the opening was uninspiring. The main characters seem to defy the standard tropes in a sense that the girl has her own interests, the guy is for the most part, a selfish lovable rogue (the bit where he escapes from the civil war leader is very funny) and seeing how several factions lead up to the final conflict is well done.

    Not as sappy as I hoped it would be and better than expected B+

  • Chuck

    Saw it last night and really enjoyed it. Taylor was solid and Collins simply lights up the screen, and Oh what a body she has! Well worth seeing!

  • Christopher S

    Excellent review, but I do disagree with the critique of the ending, I thought it was paced as a revelation type ending that ties into the beginning. It also gives closure to the story while simultaneously setting up the sequel.

  • ashipper

    Big,grand epic and a solid 2 hour escapism …that`s what I like of my movies and that`s what I got! I thoroughly enjoyed this one and hope it does well. Lynn Collins & TK had great chemistry and the cast on the whole did well not be outdone by CG1. A+ from me

  • Hazza

    Saw it last night and was thoroughly impressed. Sure it has some minor flaws but for a story which requires such a huge leap of faith from the audience, I think Stanton has pulled it off and then some. I really want one of those alien dogs

  • BillyGreek

    I saw it last night..It was really worth it’s money..A very good two hour escape to mars..good story, very good special effects, good chemistry between the lead actors and generally epic…

  • Jason Rayes

    I agree that the ending was rushed. I think that Disney is trying to set this up as a franchise so they wanted to end the film in such a way that it could lead straight into a sequel. With a two hour running time already under its belt, they compressed maybe another hours worth of story in 10 minutes and finished with on open ended finale.

  • Migz13

    I’m a bit saddened by the fact that this flick is getting negative to mixed reviews by critics.
    Me and my girlfriend saw it this morning and we were just thoroughly entertained throughout the flick. What really impressed me were the amazing set pieces and fantastic visual effects. The plot is fine and the action does it’s job pretty nicely.
    For me, John Carter is not a perfect film, but it does what it needs to do and entertained me to the point that I think it needs a much needed sequel so that we can go back and visit ‘Barsoom’ again.

  • j

    Fantastic movie… Taylor Kitsch was great; very believable as John Carter. Lynn Collins looked great, and was solid. The cinematography was fantastic, it was well shot, well paced, and well executed on all fronts. Great movie!!

  • AlexHeyNa

    “…but it’s the pattern of John Carter‘s excellent pacing.”

    Clearly, Matt, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The pacing in this film was absolute shit. Everything else was fantastic (especially the score!), but the pacing is what bother me most. The story is incredibly choppy.

    And the set-up with the room that only opens from the inside would have been cool if the movie were actually about that. They made the promise, and went back to it zero times until the very end. Granted, the pay-off was pretty freakin’ sweet, so it still kinda worked. But it still could’ve been better.

    Andrew Stanton is a great director, and this movie does no harm to that status. I just disagree with this review. B- from me. But then again, I don’t get paid to do this. So who’s gonna listen to me?

  • robert d

    John Carter is an excellent movie…. do not be fooled by the negative stuff a lot of the critics are passing out….I think a lot of the critics have forgotten what a good movie is like!

    Go see this one….. you will not be sorry!!! The only bad thing about John Carter is that the movie eventually ended while us in the audience wanted it to keep going on!

  • pj_campbell

    Great review, Matt. I agree with everything but the ending being rushed. But hey, we won’t all agree on everything. Glad it’s doing well internationally. Hoping that means we’ll see a sequel…

  • Loved It

    I just saw the move today and it was pretty amazing. I really hope that it does well because I would really love to see a sequel.

    Please give this move a chance – you will not regret it!

  • Gavin Coles

    I had the great pleasure of watching John Carter (of Mars) on IMAX and it is visually and audibly stunning. The first time we see a Barsoom ‘aircraft’ the glass in its windows ripples in the sunlight having been given the surface texture of hand blown glass, such is the attention detail. Another director may have just gone glass is glass do the quick and easy way. There is no reason you should not enjoy a film as much for its visual sceptical as for its story, hell I thought that was one of the main reasons for CGI. The orchestral work is out of this world they get an extra mention in the end credits, sit through them and enjoy the sound.

    While the story is nothing new, the outsider in a foreign land goes native, when the imagination of Andrew Stanton brings us ‘John Carter’ who cares. While I knew of the background of the ‘John Carter’ books I’ve never read them and have only seen a few selected images from books and graphic novels so I was not prejudiced.

    Go and see the film with an open mind and enjoy it for what it is (to quote Kevin Blumeyer) ‘a timeless, old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure movie’. I may not make it to the IMAX again to see John Carter but I will see it at least once more on the big screen before it gets squeezed on to Bluray.

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  • Mike

    I really enjoyed the movie, I read the books 45 years ago and was thrilled to see it made in to a movie. I did have serious reservations when reading the reviews, but remembered the reviews after Star Wars came out were terrible. The opening story line was actually better than the book IMO, and was very funny. Explaining how he got to Mars was also better than the book. The story was quite different than the book and I haven’t made up my mind if it worked or not. I did read Ebert’s review and laughed when he said that he didn’t understand why the Tharks had tusks, they had them in the book. I do agree with some of the other reviews that the Tharns were a little unbeliveable and weren’t really nessasary as they were written in the story. Remember that the original story was written 100 years ago and it was the first of the SciFi pulp stories to be published. For the most part the movie was a good adaptation of the books and if you like the hero saves the day, good vs evil, boy gets girl story go see it, you will have fun.

  • Chris

    Science fiction at its best. Acting great . Fun movie. Critics horribly wrong. Go see. Cant wait for sequal.

  • Rob

    So, John Carter.

    It got panned. The critics are terribly confused. The plot confuses them. The “lingo” confuses them. Everything is all very muddled. The only thing that confuses me is their confusion.

    Let’s see. Oh yes. It was too much like Avatar. Ok, true. In the way that a story that is 100 years old is too much like one that was replicated from Dances with Wolves…last year. And the Tharks are like the blue guys. Ok, sure. The blue chick was cool in as much as she was CGI, so it made it possible to show nipples in an American film, but they were fairly crappy Native American standins otherwise. The Tharks are what they are. Why try to get cute?

    What else? The leading man was wooden. So wait, the dude who plays John Carter was bad. Very bad. But the guy who plays Private–erm, Seargant, or is it…Mr. Smith or whateverisfuckingnamewas in Avatar was good? Really?

    Wait…what? That guy acted like acting hurt. He had one line and it was like “OMG I luv you! Yer so hawt and blue! I’m like sorry and uh…stuff.”

    But John Carter fails on more than one level. It was hard to understand. Wait, hard to…!?!?


    1. Guy was in Civil War. Family died. His heart hurts.
    2. Guy tried to move on. Failed.
    3. Guy gets transported to Mars, where Evil warlord is making a power-grab.
    4. Cute (and smart, and dangerous) Martian Princess wishes to circumvent #3.
    5. Guy likes Princess of Mars (what’s not to like) and needs to just come to Jesus and help her out.
    6. “Barsoom” is Martian for “Mars”. Try to find room in your headmeat for this one bit of sctick, right next to droid,phaser,hobbit,avatar,jedi,or Ewok, and I think you’re good.

    Shit, that was hard.

    Ok, let me elucidate. This movie was good. Go see it. It was like Star Wars but not stolen, like Avatar but not pompous, and like Indiana Jones back when Indiana Jones was still good. It was pulpy, but had some grownup emotions. It was a little cheesy, but internally consistent. It was full of tits and brawn and action, but showed respect to the source material, It was a GOOD MOVIE. And I don’t say that lightly considering:

    1. I read the book
    2. Most movies suck, statistically speaking

    The state of the Movie making industry right now is horrifying to those who used to like going to see flicks in the Theater, and I don’t want to see Disney get punished for putting out the first Disney flick in years that didn’t make me want to gouge out my own eyeballs to relieve the pain. In fact, I’d like to see them do subsequent Barsoom movies, and they won’t if it does as bad as it looks to do.

    Go see it. Just keep an open mind, don’t expect Shakespeare, and eat popcorn. It’s worth 10 bucks.

  • Apd

    Saw this film with my 6 and 8 year old boys. They thought this was the best thing since star wars. I enjoyed it as well. If you have an imagination and enjoy fantasy get yourself to the cinema to enjoy on the big screen.

  • Mary

    LOVED IT! Don’t understand why it was made out to be such a flop. One of those movies you continue to contemplate & keep playing scenes from in your head for days after you saw it. Haven’t read the books, but I think I will now. FIVE STARS & TWO THUMBS UP.

  • Pocho

    This is the classic cheap story that makes any C class movie, but with lots of money to make the better of it. Still is a C class story.