John Carter (Michael Giacchino)

Final Musings: With John Carter, we have Giacchino showing off his different stylistic sides in a grand musical adventure. To hear all of the composers’ sounds that have become loved amongst many, evolved in such a way is a true treat for any film score collector. If you don’t like your themes obvious and overly optimistic, then this score might not be for you. But if you’re the kind of person who loves his/her adventure scores orchestrally dynamic, thematically rich and ethnically diverse, then this score will likely be a big wet kiss on the mouth from your own beautiful Martian princess.

Fresh off its publication in 1917, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars became an instant classic of science fiction literature. The reputable tale tells the story of a veteran of the American Civil War who gets transported to the planet of Mars in the midst of his search for gold. There, he associates himself with the various creatures and attempts to help a Martian princess solve the plight of her people. Despite the strange and perhaps silly nature of the plot, this book is arguably one of the most influential tales of early science fantasy literature. The revolutionary book gave birth to a new generation of science fiction and continues to inspire many iconic films today such as the ever popular Star Wars. The fact that nearly a century has gone by without a proper film adaption owes itself to the bizarre case of production lingo that dates as far back as 1931. Various attempts at a full feature film adaptation were taken on over the course of time (beginning with the notion of an animated film) but the dream was only fully realized with 2012’s John Carter. The film was however met with poor critical reception for it offered very little to audiences. Being a dull film with a plethora of silly moments, John Carter only had its respectable visual effects to lure viewers in. Unfortunately, many of the film’s strongest features offers little appeal if only for the fact that all of it has been done before with a far greater degree of mastery. Yet knowing mainstream audiences, the film will likely make enough cash to warrant a predictable sequel.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of this film is Michael Giacchino’s long awaited score. The composer’s humble beginnings are very well known to the film score masses. Beginning with his fantastic scores for the successful Medal of Honor video games to full feature blockbuster film such as the recent Super 8 and eventually earning his first Oscar for Up, Giacchino has reached to such heights of popularity that he has been given daring (or rather, ridiculous) titles such as that of the “next John Williams”. 2011 was a surprisingly weak year for Michael Giacchino, but fans will likely be pleased to apprehend that he offers one his best scores with John Carter.

Expectations for this score have been brewing for some time now. Early previews at the end of 2011 generated great excitement. It also didn’t help that fans were given Andrew Stanton’s audacious claims of the score’s proposed likeness to John Williams’ Star Wars. But while the score is not that good (although it was never suggested as such), Giacchino most definitely offers a great, bold orchestral adventure!

It really is impressive to witness how far Michael Giacchino has come in terms of stylistic development. This score is perfect to really analyze the evolution of the composer’s sound. Accordingly, John Carter encompasses many of Giacchino’s trademark sounds. This is exemplified by the action material of his early Medal of Honor scores (namely the choral material), the stylistic devices from Star Trek or even the many harmonic progressions that were taken straight out of Super 8. The score also interestingly has had its dip into the styles of many other composers including Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, Miklos Rozsa, James Horner, David Arnold and of course John Williams. Considering how the film was temp-tracked with Horner’s Star Trek II, Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia and various Williams’ scores, it was clear that Giacchino’s score was crafted under its influence. To go on, listeners may even find special interest in how Giacchino rips a full page out from Patrick Doyle’s score for Carlito’s Way in the action material for the cue “Sab Than Pursues the Princess”. Regardless, the score is still a great treat for lovers of adventure music. In terms of action, there’s a whole lot of ruckus and the most rowdy moments are such great fun with bombastic cues like “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall” and “The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month”. A characteristic of great appeal in the action is when Giacchino gives a certain regal flair to some the action in John Carter that isn’t unlike what Rozsa would have came up for his Roman material. This is exemplified in the fanfare calls for the arrival of the soldiers of Helium at 3:13 – 3:27 in “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall” or the bursts of stately brass at 1:38-1:54 in “The Fight for Helium”. These small touches go to show how Giacchino approached this score as a great epic (contrary to the juvenile nature of the film). On to another point, one of the major elements of the score is the choral portions. The choir plays a monumental role in the score and consequently there are many fantastic periods of sheer choral majesty. Such as the emotional cries in “The Prize is Barsoom”, the ominous beauty of “The Temple of Issus” or the soaring chants for the Tharks (the four armed, green Martian creatures) in “Thark Side of Barsoom”. Having mentioned that last instant, Giacchino pays attention to the use of ethnic components of the score. Considering the various cultures and desert locales involved, it makes sense that the score is saturated with rambling percussion on intriguing instruments of all sorts (this can be heard in all its frenzy in portions of cues like “The Second Biggest Apes I’ve Seen This Month”). Along with that, there is the mysterious solo vocalist that is heard right from the first cue and appears every now and then. There are also the occasional accents from the duduk that can be looked for in “The Temple of Issus”. What is of further interest is how Giacchino uses the organ to add on to the effect of the Thern material in moments like 3:00 – 3:55 in “A Thern for the Worse”. All these various touches work well together to create a very satisfying listening experience.

Thematically, the score has a lot to offer with its great bold themes (although quite obvious) and lyrical melodies. John Carter’s theme is a great Arabic flavoured identity that shows signs of inspiration from Jerry Goldsmith’s The Mummy and Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia. However, of some nuisance may be the second half of this theme because of its overly optimistic nature. Hearing its bouncy waltz rendition in “The Gravity of the Situation” is amusing and understandable considering the comical sequence it is associated with, but the second half of Carter’s theme at 2:11 – 2:30 in “The Fight for Helium” strangely works against the climactic nature of the music. Despite that, the theme’s soaring moments are highly enjoyable. That being said, arguably the most appealing theme in the score is that for the Dejah. Dejah’s theme is a beautiful melody that first appears in “Thark Side of Barsoom”. While it borrows much from the harmonic progressions of Super 8, listeners will be quite impressed by the emotional peaks of the theme, especially in cues like “Carter They Come, Carter They Fall”, “Not Quite Finished” and “John Carter of Mars”. Additionally, there is the Therns’ theme that is used to stand for the Therns and the supernatural elements revolving around the connection between Earth and Mars. This is an ominous choral theme that is of great intrigue. Other secondary motifs include the Tharks’ theme, Sab’s theme and the final battle motif in “The Prize of Barsoom”. The foremost is a heroic motif that is used during the rallying moments for the Tharks and it is first heard in 4:40 at “Sab Than Pursues the Princess”. It is interesting to point out how peculiar it is that the Tharks’ theme bears an overwhelming resemblance to Williams’ theme for Tintin in 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin (nearly identical in a sense). It has been noted that Giacchino once confessed to his love for that particular Williams score in a certain interview (anyone care to make the connection?). The next theme for Sab Than makes its debut at 2:04 in “A Thern for the Worse”. This is quite a predictable tune and is disappointingly generic in a sense that it pales in comparison to the other themes of this score. The final battle motif only shows up in “The Prize is Barsoom”. This cue will likely appeal to listeners, but the choral theme and its progressions certainly harken back to constructs of the material for the Battle of Monte Cassino in his score for Medal of Honor: Underground. Nonetheless, it remains to be an epic piece that is highly effective in film as well. Withal, there are still other motifs of lesser importance used throughout the score, thus proving the commendable thematic diversity of this score.

Muse on These:

Thark Side of Barsoom

The touching debut of Dejah’s theme and the epic tribal choral material for the work well to make this one of the stand out musical moments of the score.

Carter They Come, Carter They Fall

There’s plenty of great action in this score so picking a highlight on such terms is a difficult task. Yet, this cue has some great fun with the action while doing an effective job of juggling the main themes around. The powerful statement of Dejah’s theme is noteworthy and the fanfare material at the end is memorable as well.

The Prize Is Barsoom

This cue is what the “Battle of Monte Cassino” cue was to Giacchino’s score for Medal of Honor: Underground. Both cues are similar in construct and style, and yet the both have the same emotional impact. The battle motif is well developed throughout the piece and is very memorable in film. You’ll find yourself coming back to this track often.

Ten Bitter Years

This music works quite effectively for the final sequence of the film. In all its fun, there is a great sense of pacing and the epic climax at the end with Thern’s theme makes this one of the best cues on album.

John Carter of Mars

A hell of a suite for a great score! Encompassing most of the major musical identities in grand fashioned statements, this is a fantastic closing.

In the end, one cannot help but marvel at the impressive quality and scope of John Carter. The thematic diversity, the exhilarating action and the great ethnic elements all work so effectively together to create a great musical tapestry for the film. However, some might claim the themes are largely too optimistic, or rather obvious at times (primarily the second half of Carter’s theme and Sab’s theme). Also, despite the numerous influences in the score, the music is firmly rooted in Giacchino’s own sound, rarely exploring new territories, but that is nothing more than a minor quibble for the meticulous. Of usual concern with Giacchino scores is the sound mix. Yet Dan Wallin (a popular target of criticism) seems to have surprised audiences with a decent mix this time around. Despite this, the mix is certainly not perfect. The choral work is severely lacking in dominance, often overpowered by the orchestra. It’s a shame because there are some moments in that score that would have most definitely benefited from placing the choir more at the forefront. For instance, choral climax of “Thark Side of Barsoom” would have benefitted from a greater choral presence, and at moments like that, the percussive elements are placed a bit too much at the forefront. To go on, the violin solo of the battle motif in “The Prize is Barsoom” is too undermixed to take it seriously. Other than that, there are the typical irksome puns for the track titles (sorry Giacchino, but they’re not that funny) although they are expectedly harmless. Ultimately, Giacchino delivers a fantastic adventure score that definitely lives up to the hype built around it. It may interest some that it works even better in film than on album. And this is definitely an album that you’d want to get your hands on as soon as possible. It may not live up to the glory of the composer’s Medal of Honor scores, but amidst a strong career, this does stand amongst some his best output yet.

Rating:  * * * * 

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7 Comments on “John Carter (Michael Giacchino)”

  1. Beyond El Mar says:

    Tharks for reviewing this score! Nice break down KK.

    I would say this is a 5 star score because it flows better than any of his MOH scores. But that’s mostly due to the choppy nature of those video games.

    • kalaisan says:

      You’re taking the path to the Thark Side Beyond…be wary of the evil puns of Giacchino!

      MOH had far more enjoyable action material, greater highlights and fantastic themes all wrapped into great scores. The first 3 are my favourite Giacchino scores. Oh and they have the best mix for sure too ;) But thats my opinion of course.

  2. Gargantua says:

    Great score review, but did you see the film? I and everyone I attended with found it to be superior and a lot of fun. Not anything award or legacy worthy but a solid adventure film. I say, don’t trust the critics on this one…

    • kalaisan says:

      I did see the film, many of the thematic connections and critical analysis of this score in the review is based on how it worked in film. As for what I thought of the movie, while it isn’t downright terrible, it was pretty silly and kind of bland for my tastes. There was very little the film offered because most of it has already been done to death, it was to the point where the film was actually boring. There were some occasional hints of genuine humour, but other than that, I found very little to enjoy in the movie.

      Glad you enjoyed the film though. And thanks for your kind words.

  3. Hey Kalaisan, great review as always. Can’t wait to hear the full score, but I’m hoping to see the film first. I’m really bummed that the film has gotten such bad reviews, as I was trying to remain tremendously optimistic. Anyways, JC’s main head is already stuck in my head, just from preview clips, so that’s always something, and can’t wait to dive into the full experience!

  4. Thomas Allen says:

    Great review. I got the score yesterday, so I’ve listened to it a few times. It never occurred to me that Carter’s theme sounded a bit “Arabic flavoured” as you put it. It always seemed a bit more gypsy-ish to me, especially in “Gravity of the Situation.” Though, I see what you meant now.

  5. Njabulo Phungula says:

    I’ve only heard a bit of the score, but it sounds unlike anything that I’ve heard recently. I think its awesome (well, the stuff that I HAVE heard). great review


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