In 1912, the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, conceived a fantasy world within the surface of Mars, which he called Barsoom. Following the adventures of a man from Earth travelling through this Martian world, Burroughs’ series of books have influenced a century of sci-fi filmmaking with some examples being Flash Gordon, Star Wars and in recent memory, Avatar. Since the books’ publication, there have been many attempts at bringing John Carter to the big screen. In the previous decade, filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau took a shot at the project but failed. Pixar’s WALL-E director, Andrew Stanton, however not only successfully brings this classic fantasy adventure to the cinema, but also takes his first big step into live-action in the process.
Based on the first story ‘A Princess of Mars’, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former American Civil War Confederate Army captain who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where there is a whole civilisation on the brink of outright war. As an evil force are planning to wipe out all the species of Barsoom, Carter, along with the Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), must become the hero to save the dying planet.
When this long-awaited adaptation was initially advertised, a number of people had trepidations towards it as some of the previewed clips showed the eponymous protagonist covered in blue blood (*ahem* Na’vi) and a sequence in which he fights giant monsters in one big arena (*ahem* Attack of the Clones). It’s fair to say that the plot isn’t original, given that the source material is a hundred years old, and the hero-saves-princess scenario has been used countless times but some good work has come out of it, as George Lucas has shown in 1977.
In the case of John Carter, the narrative is not without its flaws as a lot of the drama is exposition to explain the science and life of Barsoom. Unlike James Cameron’s sci-fi epic which was long enough to truly explore and understand the world it is based in, John Carter moves at such a pace that it becomes a rather generic piece about simple good versus evil. However, at the heart of the film is the journey of the title character who starts off as a former soldier who has lost the will to fight due to the horrors of the Civil War, but during his time as an alien in an unknown world, realises there is something worth fighting for: the love of a princess. Sounds cheesy I know, and yet Taylor Kitsch is convincing as the heroic figure who leaps from place to place and, in one key scene, delivers well the epic speech.
As a man who has achieved CGI greatness through the ocean of Finding Nemo and the post-apocalyptic cities of WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton approaches his live-action debut with an animator’s eye. Most of Barsoom is depicted as a desert, the rest consists of the various lands of the planet’s inhabitants, including the brutal tribes of the tall green-skinned Tharks, as well as the beautifully designed cities of the Red Martians. A lot of the action sequences are the usual swashbuckling moments which are fun to watch, especially in IMAX 3D, although the climax is disappointingly dull. The stand-out moment features Carter single-handedly taking on an army of green Martians and whilst he’s cutting up a lot of baddies, it intercuts with Carter’s great loss during the Civil War. This sequence alone is all about character and you only wish the rest of the film was this good.
As for the Red Martians, which includes Dominic West and Ciaran Hinds in cheesy fashion, you can see why Carter falls in love with Dejah Thoris, as Lynn Collins is very much an alien version of Xena: Warrior Princess, and despite one point where she unconvincingly says “rubbish”, her English accent gives her a strong presence as the princess. As performance capture is the big thing due to the smurfs of Avatar, seeing thespian actors like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton in green computerised makeup is impressive. The biggest criticism involves Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Spy Kids‘ Daryl Sabara) reading his uncle’s journal. This becomes a key element in the film’s final moments, which I think is a terribly clunky plot device of fact meets fiction.
A hundred years have passed since the introduction of John Carter, and his first big-screen adventure is a spectacular watch (especially in IMAX 3D), but the narrative isn’t entirely thrilling. However, Stanton’s first film in live-action is enjoyable enough as a sci-fi adventure romp, despite not calling it John Carter of Mars.
DIRECTOR: ANDREW STANTON
SCREENWRITERS: ANDREW STANTON, MARK ANDREWS, MICHAEL CHABON
STARRING: TAYLOR KITSCH, LYNN COLLINS, SAMANTHA MORTON, WILLEM DAFOE, THOMAS HADEN CHURCH, MARK STRONG, CIARAN HINDS, DOMINIC WEST, JAMES PUREFOY, BRYAN CRANSTON, DARYL SABARA
RUNTIME: 132 MINS