Disney has faced an uphill battle marketing its new film, JOHN CARTER. Based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1917 novel A Princess from Mars, the studio has endured negative press for months surrounding focus groups, changing titles, and the dilemma of how to present a sci-fi/fantasy film based on a century-old book that few people have even heard of, much less read.
Forget all the pre-opening manhandling and online vitriol. JOHN CARTER is a thoroughly entertaining, if imperfect, film that should give genre fans plenty to enjoy, whether it’s eye candy leads Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins or the film’s evocative art direction and eye-popping special effects (which probably would have looked less fuzzy in 2D). The script by director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) somehow conjures up emotion out of the Red Planet’s dust and alien characters. But Stanton excels in the film’s cracker action sequences with their Pixar sense of dramatic pace. Michael Giacchino‘s score is quite simply breathtaking, a thrilling throwback to heroic film scores of yore.
Giacchino’s heroic main theme is one of his finest, giving the film and the score a musical identity that is sorely missing from recent genre films. Whether mysteriously voiced in the cellos and string tremolos in “A Thern for the Worse” or pumped up to its full brass glory in the rousing Western homage in “Get Carter,” the theme conveys the many facets of Carter’s personality, from disillusioned Civil War vet to confused alien and unlikely hero.
Giacchino gets great mileage out of al parts of the theme, including deconstructing the three-note motif at the beginning of the melody for an aural calling card. In “Gravity of the Situation,” the theme becomes airborne in a Straussian waltz (Richard, not Johann) of buoyant musical wit as Carter gets his Mars legs.
John Williams’s heir apparent again channels his legendary predecessor in tracks like “Sab Than Pursues the Princess.” As the winged ships battle it out in the sky, percussion battle it out in the recording studio with churning lower-string ostinati and furious sixteenth-note figures in the violins, woodwinds, and xylophone. As John Carter leaps into the air to catch the princess, the musical action suspends in mid-air to a thrilling, heroic rendition of the main theme before returning to its intricate orchestral furor.
Fans of Giacchino’s action music will find much to appreciate. There are thrilling set pieces like the nail-biting wedding sequence “The Prize Is Barsoom,” the rousing “Fight for Helium,” and the surprising epilogue “Ten Bitter Years.” In “Carter They Come, Carter They Fal,” Stanton weaves together another alien battle with Carter’s memories of his wife on Earth. When the sound effects are dialed down, Giacchino’s strings and wordless chorus take center stage. Their voices combine in a gut-wrenching and heartbreaking threnody of pain, loneliness, and loss.
Whether on metal or drums, Giacchino’s use of percussion gives the score a primal, tribal force. It’s alien yet familiar. Though apparently even the Tharks have heard of “moaning woman” over 55 million miles away. Thankfully, Giacchino doesn’t overplay his hand with this overused trend in contemporary scoring.
As enjoyable as Giacchino’s score is on disc, hear it in context of the film. Preferably find huge multiplex speakers and enjoy the vicarious thrill that only great film music can. Stanton allows Giacchino generous visual and dramatic space for his music and the composer delivers. Once it wraps up in a spine-tingling, heroic major chord over the final title card, stick around for the end credits and the glorious nine-minute suite. JOHN CARTER is the first great film score of 2012.