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JOHN CARTER – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Already tainted as one of the biggest box-office disasters in cinema history, John Carter looks set to go down in negative notoriety rather than with the acclaim and applause many expected at Disney when the project was first announced. A large scale action science-fiction epic, the film is a big screen mishmash adaptation of several of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels, which were first written in 1912 and stand as some of the first works of interplanetary science fiction ever written. The film, which is directed by Andrew Stanton, stars newcomer Taylor Kitsch as the eponymous Carter, a civil war veteran from Virginia who, while prospecting out west, finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars, where he becomes embroiled in a second civil war between the planet’s inhabitants, who call their world Barsoom. The film co-stars Lynn Collins as the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris, Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West as the two rival jeddak kings in whose lengthy battle Carter gets caught, and Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton in motion-capture as two of the multi-armed Tharks, who help and hinder Carter in his quest with equal measure.

The score for John Carter is by the ever-busy Michael Giacchino, still hot from his well-received work in 2011 on films such as Super 8 and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. As one would expect given the subject matter, the score is an enormous action epic, filled to the brim with large orchestral flourishes, memorable themes, and dense and powerful action music. Director Stanton specifically asked Giacchino to make this score “his Star Wars”, and not hold back when it came to making bold musical statements or old-fashioned orchestral grandeur. As a result, John Carter is a wonderfully enjoyable throwback score which hits all the right spots as pure music, packs a mean emotional punch, and accompanies and enhances the unfairly-maligned film expertly.

Stylistically, John Carter is a combination of the music from Super 8 and the TV series Lost, with a little bit of a throwback to his early work on the Medal of Honor video games. The recurring central theme for Carter himself is a heroic anthem, reappearing at regular intervals throughout the score as a marker for his actions far from home. In its most common version, the theme has a solid nobility to it that lends itself to goosebump-inducing renditions as the camera soars over the surface of the red planet, and its performances in cues such as the opening “A Thern for the Worse” and the Americana-inspired “Get Carter” (for the scene where the hero is pursued across a wild west landscape by Union soldiers prior to his journey to the stars) are truly magnificent. The composer Simon Boswell once told me of his theory that regular movie-goers only remember music when it’s set in the desert, or in space: John Carter has both. There’s a touch of Lawrence of Arabia in the music at such moments, and that’s never a bad thing.

There’s a bouncy and amusing variation of the main theme in “Gravity of the Situation”, which accompanies the scene where Carter realizes that, due to his bone structure and center of gravity, he can leap enormous distances on Mars’s surface – although before he can do that, he must learn to move, resulting in some Bambi-like ungainly movement, and similarly comedic musical accompaniment, complete with prancing strings, rolling woodwinds, piano trills, harp glissandi, and a waltz-like beat.

A more ethnic, tribal style accompanies the sequences concerning the alien Tharks, into which Giacchino inserts a great deal more percussive ideas and more rhythmic pacing. As a less technologically advanced race, the Tharks have a more primal existence than the more refined human population of Barsoom, and this is reflected in Giacchino’s use of rattles and shakers and a chanting chorus in cues such as “Thark Side of Barsoom”, the moody “The Temple of Issus”, and the dangerous-sounding and percussion-heavy “Zodanga Happens”. Palestinian vocalist Azam Ali often lends her dulcet tones to these cues too, adding a further level of striking mysticism to the proceedings. Elsewhere, there is an appropriately ominous and foreboding feeling to “A Thern Warning” and “Thernabout”, pieces which accompany the omnipresent God-like multidimensional beings whose machinations behind the scenes are the catalysts for all of John Carter’s problems. Their music has an especially arresting ethereal choral element which is greatly appealing.

A secondary theme which represents the romantic relationship between Carter and Dejah Thoris, and acts as a motif for Dejah herself, gets several outings; after a brief performance at the beginning of the aforementioned “Thark Side of Barsoom”, it emerges with a glorious string-based and chorally-enhanced sweep during the stunningly-realized “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall”, a cue which leans heavily on the most teary-eyed parts of Lost, but which nevertheless retains a sense of individual identity here. The theme also lends itself to various emotional variations, such as the tender harp-led version at the beginning of “A Change of Heart”, which is really is lovely, and in the conclusive “John Carter of Mars”, which allows the score to end on an important thematic note – that as much as Carter is a warrior, love is his primary motivator. That finale cue is outstanding; the choir, which has been present through much of the score anyway, really comes to the forefront of the mix, giving Carter and his adventures an appropriately epic sendoff.

The action music, of which there is quite a bit, is dense and exciting. The second half of the opening “A Thern for the Worse” explodes into frantic string runs and a powerful brass performance of a motif for the evil Zodanga empire which is very impressive, while the monumental “Sab Than Pursues the Princess” introduces a wonderful staccato brass motif that accompanies the dangerous Zodangan jeddak as he maneuvers his enormous airships across the Martian landscape in pursuit of his quarry, as well as a stirring and vibrant five-note secondary motif for Carter’s heroic endeavors. Later, “The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month”, which underscores the vibrant battle between Carter and the much-maligned “albino wombats” as several film reviewers jokingly dubbed them, combines the ethnic orchestrations associated with the Tharks with a driving orchestral undercurrent, shrill woodwind shrieks, and a thumping, relentless core full of energy and movement that is often reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s anarchic score for Planet of the Apes.

The big finale of the film, which is encompassed musically by the cues “The Prize is Barsoom” and “The Fight for Helium”, contains potent performances of virtually all the score’s main musical motifs, ranging from soft and intimate piano, chorus and string writing to vivid restatements of the raucous action material, and moments of enormous grandeur from the main John Carter theme. On several occasions Giacchino finds clever ways to pit motifs against each other in a battle for supremacy – listen to the way the pulsating Zodanga motif and the Thark choral chanting play off each other, around three minutes into “The Prize is Barsoom”. It’s great stuff, really.

Listeners who enjoy large scale fantasy scores with strong main themes and significant action set pieces will enjoy John Carter greatly, as will those who appreciated Giacchino’s earlier efforts in similarly-styled scores, especially the aforementioned likes of Super 8, and the Lost TV series. It’s unfortunate that the film itself has crashed and burned so spectacularly in terms of box office returns and critical response, because it really doesn’t deserve the mauling it has received, and as is always the case in these circumstances, Giacchino’s contribution seems destined to be overlooked as a result of its association with its film – in many ways, there are parallels with John Debney’s Cutthroat Island, which only lives on in the memory through its music. For my own part, I did enjoy the film, despite its obvious logical flaws – and Giacchino’s score can rightly be considered one of the early great works of 2012.

Rating: ****½

Buy the John Carter soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Thern For The Worse (7:39)
  • Get Carter (4:25)
  • Gravity of the Situation (1:20)
  • Thark Side of Barsoom (2:56)
  • Sab Than Pursues the Princess (5:34)
  • The Temple of Issus (3:25)
  • Zodanga Happened (4:02)
  • The Blue Light Special (4:13)
  • Carter They Come, Carter They Fall (3:55)
  • A Change of Heart (3:06)
  • A Thern Warning (4:04)
  • The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month (2:36)
  • The Right of Challenge (2:23)
  • The Prize is Barsoom (4:29)
  • The Fight for Helium (4:34)
  • Not Quite Finished (2:07)
  • Thernabout (1:19)
  • Ten Bitter Years (3:13)
  • John Carter of Mars (8:55)

Running Time: 74 minutes 15 seconds

Walt Disney Records D001405102 (2012)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Tim Simonec, Peter Boyer, Andrea Datzman, Mark Gasbarro, Ira Hearshen, Norman Ludwin and Cameron Patrick, . Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Stephen M. Davis and Jonathan Stevens. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

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  1. March 30, 2012 at 7:53 am

    Great review Jon. I’m getting more and more convinced I need to pick this score up sooner than later. I love Giacchino when he’s in this mode.

  2. March 30, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Nice review! It’s very interesting to me that everything Giacchino scores seems to be either a monumental success (Up, Star Trek, Super 8) or an absolutely devastating failure (Speed Racer, Land of the Lost, John Carter) at the box office.

    The Amazon product page says that this CD is a “limited edition physical soundtrack run.” I wonder how limited it will wind up being, given the already tepid demand for CDs combined with the movie’s box office failure.

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