John Carter (2012)
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews
Starring: Ciarán Hinds, Daryl Sabara, James Purefoy, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Polly Walker, Samantha Morton, Taylor Kitsch, Thomas Haden Church, Willem Dafoe
DIRECTED BY: Andrew Stanton
WRITTEN BY: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
STARRING: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe
RUNNING TIME: 132 mins
DISTRIBUTED BY: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mars, known to its occupants as Barsoom, is torn by civil war which is making the planet a dying world. Meanwhile on Earth, New York, 1896, young Edgar Rice Burroughs is summoned to New York by his uncle John Carter, only to discover that the man has mysteriously died. The former Confederate captain has left his wealth and estate to the young Burroughs with the instructions that his body not undergo traditional funeral procedure and he be buried in a special crypt that opens only from the inside. As Burroughs reads Carter’s journal, we flash back thirteen years to Carter searching for gold in Arizona. After escaping from the authorities who want him to join the Cavalry to fight the local Apaches, Carter takes refuge in a cave the natives mysteriously fear and encounters a strange bald robed figure. He is then teleported to Barsoom, where it seems that his help could be badly needed………………………..
You could say that John Carter is what you might come up with if you rolled Flash Gordon, Avatar, Star Wars and Stargate into one. Such a statement is an unfair one though, because of course Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the book on which the movie is based, A Princess Of Mars, way back in 1912, and it was only the first in a series of books featuring further Martian adventures of its hero. They never quite achieved the popularity of Burroughs’s stories about another heroic character, a certain Tarzan Of The Apes, but they certainly stirred my imagination when I read some of them as a child, and it is a wonder that only now has there been a direct adaptation of one of the books, especially when you consider that the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Jon Favreau, John McTiernan and Robert Rodriguez have attempted to put Burroughs’s creation on screen. Well, this is of course if you don’t count the 2009 direct to DVD ‘updated’ version Princess Of Mars, a typically shoddy production from that notorious studio Asylum!
So here, exactly one hundred years after A Princess Of Mars was first published, we finally have John Carter, altered from its original title of John Carter Of Mars. Some have claimed that the reason for the title change is that Disney’s film Mars Needs Moms last year was a huge flop. There has been trepidation in some quarters about John Carter, with rumours that it could be a box office bomb. I really hope this doesn’t happen, as it is a highly enjoyable slice of escapism that without a doubt certainly seems shorter than its length. The time literally flies by and I guarantee that you won’t be looking at your watch! The film does not work quite as well as it should though. It has all the ingredients for a terrific science fiction action-adventure; transportation to another planet, aliens, spaceships, monsters etc, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It seems to hold back somewhat, as if it’s afraid of becoming too entertaining, too exciting, etc. You will probably enjoy the film while it’s on, but you may also find it hard not to have a feeling of “is that it”? Perhaps they waited too long to make it.
The opening throws you into a frantic battle on Mars, replete with some clunky narration and some sound effects which may sound rather familiar if you have recently seen a Star Wars movie, and it seems immediately apparent that director Andrew Stanton hasn’t made the transfer from animation to live action quite as well as his Pixar cohort Brad Bird, feeling the need to cut the action into tiny shots so you don’t much of an idea what is going on. Well, not everyone will find it a flaw like me but I just find this style of action directing irritating and pointless so I will just leave it at that! We then cut to Earth, and the cut is so abrupt that I wondered if a reel was missing. The next few scenes introducing our hero and his life have a few laughs, such as Carter’s attempts to escape from jail, but the scenes are so short that this whole section feels rushed and disjointed.
Never mind, we soon see Carter transported to Mars, and the film seems like it’s about to take off, which to be honest it only does in fits and spurts. There’s little sense of wonder as we are gradually introduced to the inhabitants and cities of Mars, and why is Mars not red? This seems like a silly thing to moan about but I just couldn’t get it out of my head. After much exposition where we learn the villain’s dastardly plan, the movie settles into a predictable but not at all unpleasant groove, and you could probably write some of it yourself. This is not really a fault of the screenwriters Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon of course, it’s because the original material has been imitated by so many films and serials over the years that it just doesn’t seem that fresh any more. I admire the filmmakers for putting Burroughs’s vision virtually on screen, without elaboration or the temptation to send things up [though there is a bit of humour which overall is nicely judged]. John Carter has an innocent, almost pure, feel to it that is immensely likeable, but where you should be shaken, you will probably just be stirred!
Visually the film can’t be faulted. From the inhabitants of Mars to their crafts that are powered by light to the dazzling costumes, a great deal of effort has been made to break the cliches and show us something new and look to the original books and illustrations as a guide rather than slavishly copy things we have seen in films, though I did detect a Hiyao Miyazaki influence in places [that’s never a bad thing though!.] There is one particular interior that is a wonderful maze of circles and patterns, almost genuinely looking like nothing on Earth. The combination of real sets and CGI is seamless; I’m a great critic of CGI, but you’d be hard put to see the joins here. Sadly the movie falters considerably with regard to its action though. Obviously the book’s non-stop mayhem would have resulted in a rather repetitive watch, but in instead the filmmakers have rather frustratingly held back and don’t entirely give the viewer what they may want, despite the number of epic aerial shots Stanton gives us of marching alien armies and the like. There’s a terrific arena brawl with two ape-like creatures which is thrilling stuff, and for the most part Stanton reigns in the confusion of the opening sequence, but the bursts of excitement are far too brief, such as when Carter, who can jump in the air due to Mars’s atmosphere and possesses great strength, battles what seems like an army. He jumps around buildings and knocks down loads of aliens, and it’s all becoming quite exhilarating, but after about half a minute the scene is over, leaving you gagging for you. The climax is especially disappointing in this respect.
The cast for the film mostly fare very well, with Mark Strong once again playing a totally different villain from the many others he has played before. However Taylor Kitsch is so wooden as Carter that he may have just as well be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who would have at least brought some self-effacing charm, but then Taylor isn’t helped by a script that makes his character very one-dimensional, unlike Carter in the book. Lynn Collins fares better as Carter’s love interest Dejah Thoris, helping to make their scenes together quite pleasing, though am I the only person getting sick of movie heroines who constantly have to prove themselves as tough as the heroes? It was obviously thought that Burroughs’s heroine as written would not translate well for modern viewers, but I don’t really agree. I know I risk offending some feminists here, and I apologise in advance to any who are reading this, but I crave a bit of a return to good old days of damsels in distress, when the women were actually distinct from the men rather than being virtually the same.
It goes without saying that the 3D isn’t anything special; as with Tron: Legacy they seem to have gone for subtlety which for me defeats the whole purpose of 3D. Backed up by an almost constant score in the traditional manner from Michael Giacchino which is pleasing but, like most scores these days, lacks any memorable themes, John Carter is immensely likeable, but just never becomes the very good, rather than the good, film movie it constantly seems to be striving to be. If you just want to escape from the troubles in your life for just over a couple of hours it will certainly do the job. I hope it is a box office success because I would certainly like to see more adventures on Mars from this team, who will have undoubtedly learned their lessons from this one and will be able to give us a movie that really is out of this world. More than that though, I hope that, if John Carter does well, it will inspire a studio and a filmmaker to revisit Tarzan Of The Apes, who has had countless incarnations on screen but who has never really been depicted in the way Burroughs wrote him. Here’s hoping……………..