From the moment I found out about it, I was looking forward to John Carter. A film adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that basically invented the sci fi fantasy genre had my inner geek all excited. Reading the first novel, A Princess of Mars, has only increased my anticipation. Despite some inevitable early-19th century imperialist undertones (John Carter is clearly bearing a White Man’s Burden), the book is an excellent read: not deeply thematic, but well-paced and generally captivating. As such I went into this event (a showing of 5 short clips from the movie, with a Q&A to follow), with fairly high expectations. I left it with even higher ones.
Part of the reason for this was the clips themselves. Taken together they played out as a summary of the character arc of John Carter. He remains Burrough’s ultimate man of war, only given extra depth via a tragic backstory. For the most part the clips were comic pieces where John (Taylor Kitsch) adjusts to suddenly finding himself on Mars, and is confronted with some truly bizarre aliens. At this point, I should mention that the animators have done a great job on the character animation, the highlight of this being that Willem Dafoe, even mo-capped into the body of a 9ft, four-armed, noseless Martian, still looks like Willem Dafoe.
By the fourth clip, I figured the film would meet the expectations set by the book, and be a shallow, yet entertaining, thrill ride. But the fifth clip changed that. This was a moment when Carter sacrifices himself for his Princess, and is pulled off with an emotional strength that managed to silence even an audience of critics.
My hopes for John Carter being a deeply rewarding experience were further enhanced by the following Q&A. The most commonly recurring theme of this was the reverence Animation Supervisor Eamonn Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Rowe and lead Taylor Kitsch all bore for Writer-Director Andrew Stanton (who previously directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, writing the latter as well). With this being Statton’s first foray into real-life filmmaking (his previous jobs having been all in animation) apparently buttocks were at first firmly clenched. However, by the sound of it, they are currently severely loosened.
Kitsch in particular was singing Stanton’s praises. He went as far as declaring it an honour to play a character Stanton had idolised from childhood. Though perhaps not going quite as far, Rowe & Butler both lauded Stanton’s command of visuals, attributing it to his exhaustive preparation. Stanton seems to have had every day’s worth of scenes ready-prepared in his head before shooting even started. Similarly, Kitsch told an anecdote of how, in his first meeting with Stanton, he walked into the director’s study to be greeted with the character arc of John Carter spread all over the walls and ceiling. John Carter it seems is a 3D character in every sense.
Besides the praise, various other interesting details came to light. Taylor Kitsch apparently prepared for his role by sitting down with US Civil War historians and reading the memoirs of Civil War soldiers. Now, as a history student, any mention of historical accuracy is enough to get me excited. However, in terms of preparing to embody character, reading the letters of these ancient soldiers seems to me an excellent idea. It is my opinion that anyone playing John Carter needs to enter a soldier’s mindset, and it is reassuring to find out that Kitsch seems to have reached the same conclusion.
As for the visuals, I am looking forward to seeing Barsoom (the name for the fantasy Mars), on the big screen. Though the buzzword of realism was oft used to describe the world, this refers more to the animator’s eye for detail Stanton brought to this production. Aesthetically the environment (jointly inspired by the geographies of Mars and Utah) prefers fantastic spectacle to dour realism, something that Thor proved works really well. The designers have also done a great job with the various wild species of Mars. Tharks, Warhoons, Thotes and the rest all have distinct, characterful looks. My favourite creature of the evening however was Wu-la, who somehow manages to look like the world’s friendliest puppy, despite being a six-legged monster the size of a crocodile.
So all in all John Carter has earned my anticipation. The evidence of emotional depth, the palpable and justified respect held for the director, the effort that’s gone into creating a fantasy world with its own unique aesthetic, all these make me hopeful for the upcoming product. And, according to Kitsch, “Tharks with guns” apparently fills all plotholes, so online nitpickers can just shut it. From all evidence then, John Carter seems well worth a look when it comes out.
JOHN CARTER will arrive in UK&Ireland plus USA on March 9th 2012, the film stars also Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church
– Adam Brodie