John Carter

Given that it’s based on a groundbreaking work of early science fiction, it comes as no surprise that Disney’s 3D adventure based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, John Carter carries an musty air of pastiche; being a hodgepodge of elements that have been borrowed by every fantasy filmmaker in the hundred years since it was first published.

As directed by Andrew Stanton, the story opens in 1881 with Burrough’s himself as a young man (played by Daryl Sabara) inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Among his effects, Burroughs finds a leather-bound journal that tells a story of interplanetary travel, war, romance and heroism that seems, extraordinarily, to be a true account. Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, brought West after the peace to prospect for gold. No sooner does he discover a cave full of nuggets than he is mysteriously transported to another realm: the planet Mars, which the locals call Barsoom.

There, blessed with super-strength thanks to the lower gravity, Carter meets the Tharks; a race of green-skinned, six-armed creatures who are struggling in a thousand-year war. Their adversaries are the technologically advanced Zodangans, whose arrogant leader Sab Than (Dominic West), has just acquired a new weapon of mass destruction from a shape-shifting, blue-skinned demi-god known as Matai Shang (and played by Mark Strong). The third faction in the battle for Barsoom are the Jeddak (Ciaran Hinds) and his beautiful daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who are looking for a hero to unite them against the belligerent Zodangans. They find their man in Carter, with the bemused Earthman quickly cast as the chosen one and leading the united forces of the planet in a quest for peace.

Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and had a hand in writing all three Toy Story features, follows his Pixar colleague Brad Bird in moving from the elevated world of gorgeous, rightly-lauded digital animation to the hustle and bustle of the live-action cattle-market. Despite the presence of novelist Michael Chabon among the scriptwriters, dramatic coherence loses out to visual flair with the result that John Carter is more a series of thunderous incidents than a gracefully composed story. The time and patience required to thread a route through a troika of warring factions, a rogue’s gallery of good guys and bad guys, a mystical back-story and an interplanetary romance is sacrificed for another jumpy effects sequence or 3D wow. There is too much going on and little of it makes much sense on a single viewing.

All this means John Carter is more of a passing diversion than an immersive experience. Stanton has all the technological bells and whistles that a reported $250 million budget can buy, but he struggles to carve any meaning out of his pretty effects. The characters remain broad types, the plot is confused and saggy while the essential otherworldly nature of Carter’s adventure is never given a moment to settle. It says a lot when, having waited his turn for a century, we still don’t know much about our eponymous hero after two hours of extravagant spectacle. Fittingly perhaps, for a film set on Mars, there is a distinct lack of atmosphere, with the director eschewing the usual flame-red Mars template for something that looks like what it is; a snag-toothed yellow desert straight from a John Ford western.

Taking the lead role for the first time, Kitsch is entirely convincing as a rippling action hero, with his straggly hair, tattered loincloth and nipples that follow you around the room like the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes. He meets his match with Collins, a capable, courageous heroine with unconventional looks and a whip-smart mind, whose skimpy costumes might come to define puberty for a generation of teenage boys (if any of them actually go to see it) in the same way as Carrie Fisher did in Star Wars thirty years ago. The secondary characters are well delivered; Strong is good as the monkish puppet-master pulling the strings on planetary politics, Hinds does extremely well to overcome a pantomime costume and reams of explanatory dialogue while Prufroy adds a winning smirk to his otherwise perfunctory factotum.

The nagging thought remains that if Disney believed John Carter was good enough to fight for a spot in the crowded, lucrative summer marketplace, we wouldn’t be watching it in the chill damp of March. There's also something disconcerting about their decision to truncate the title, removing "from Mars" and making their hero indistinguishable from a geography teacher or, according to Google, the heroic hospital doctor Noah Wyle played on E.R. Regardless of all their tinkering, what Disney has on it's hands is a pretty decent sci-fi action picture, targeted at but unsold to the middle-teen market, that contains some intriguing ideas, gutsy performances and a few enduring moments, mostly from the special effects work. John Carter could have been much more: the story could have been more clearly deliniated, the effects work could have been cleaner, it could have been more exciting and Stanton could have made us care something for his characters. It’s no classic but neither is it a fiasco. Not out of this world, then.

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