John Carter has all of the ingredients to succeed as an adventure film but sadly falls just short.
A genuine passion project for Wall.E director Andrew Stanton, John Carter has all of the ingredients to succeed as an adventure film but sadly falls just short. Based on the classic science fiction series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film follows civil war cavalryman Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he is mysteriously transported to Mars – or “Barsoom” in the native language – a planet gripped by its own conflict between the city-states of Helium and the mechanically roving Zodanga, caused by the sinister machinations of Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Encountering the tribal, four-armed Tharks, he becomes caught up in the conflict, meeting Princess of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) as she strives to save her city from annihilation thanks to Shang’s super weapon, now wielded by Zodangan leader Sab Than (Dominic West). Yes, there really are that many bizarre names to remember.
The fondness for the source material is clear from the off, with the richly-imagined landscapes and almost steampunk depiction of Mars providing a rich, deep mythology for the script to explore. Indeed, in the very first scene we are treated to an aerial battle between the two factions, a visually arresting spectacle which sets the tone for the rest of the film. The film looks absolutely superb –the deserts and ornate architecture of Mars both make for spectacular landscapes, and with art direction this accomplished we are totally drawn into the fantasy world we are presented with. The only weakness here is the use of 3D. It never once adds anything to the experience, only serving to dim the picture on screen. When seeing this film, save yourself the extra cash and opt for a 2D showing – the visuals are gorgeous enough to hold up without the additional dimension.
Kitsch is a fine lead, despite a slightly bizarre growling delivery reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman, and handles the physical demands of the role with aplomb. His character is given a little depth, but the script happily rejects the chance to give him a real “dark” side, making it a welcome novelty to have an old-fashioned reluctant hero to cheer for. Lynn Collins is also impressive as Dejah, again negotiating a heavily physical role with skill and intensity, she is never posited as a helpless damsel in distress, proving a capable ally for Carter. Willem Dafoe is unrecognisable in a motion capture performance as Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks, but inhabits perhaps the best character in the film, a loyal but brusque warrior, developing an uneasy partnership with Carter, his scenes are amongst the most exciting. Elsewhere, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy alumni Mark Strong and Ciaran Hinds get their teeth into a somewhat less restrained script, and are all the more charismatic for it, but Dominic West is sadly wasted as Sab Than in an underwritten role which could so easily have been fleshed out more. The most endearing introduction surely has to be Woola, the dog-like companion Carter picks up along the way, a faithful and funny presence, he is surely destined to become a fan favourite, should the planned franchise continue.
It is the Tharks that provide the most interesting aspects of the film. Designed to stand out as individuals despite their alien appearance, they are far more recognisable from each other than the various “human” characters (who must wear red and blue clothing to clearly designate the baddies from the goodies). Their savage but honourable and vibrant society is the setting for large sections of the story, providing yet more impressive design work to enjoy.
The main worry with John Carter is that a lot of tropes may feel rather familiar – this is ironic, given the influential nature of the source material, as similar films such as Star Wars and Avatar (the most obvious parallel) take heavy inspiration from Burroughs’ novels. The deep mythology of Barsoom gives rise to a rather difficult to follow plot, thanks to the many names and places we are asked to remember, but in terms of entertainment value there is enough spectacle here to keep us interested for the running time.
A few plot missteps do derail things a little, a good example being Carter’s new found ability to jump extended distances, and to fight with immense strength thanks to Mars’ reduced gravity. The scope of his powers appears to change as the story demands it, as we see him struggle to jump a few metres in one scene, before nailing an inch-perfect half-mile leap in the next. Similarly, we see him slay huge foes with a single blow at several points, whilst struggling to disrupt the makeup of human opponents later on. It’s an intriguing premise that could have been explored more, and feels a little taken for granted.
A fun if flawed family adventure, John Carter is an old-fashioned event movie, with plenty of action to enjoy, a decent cast having fun, and a rich world with huge potential for further stories. A complex mythology mean the film relies on a script which attempts more exposition than it achieves, but not quite enough to derail the experience. Should this be a success, we would expect great things of future sequels, if they are able to learn from the mistakes of this instalment.