This was always going to be an eagerly anticipated take on an American Classic, now brought to us by Disney and directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame, who helmed the brilliant Wall-E and Finding Nemo.
The John Carter books, by Edgar Rice Boroughs (of Tarzan fame), are relatively little known outside the US, but to a certain extent they’re America’s equivalent of British classics such as Lord Of The Rings and Narnia, loved by children and adults alike. I knew very little of John Carter prior to hearing about the release, but the Avatar-esque trailers were promising. Unfortunately though the end result feels more like the dodgy adaptation that turned out to be The Golden Compass, although thankfully not as bad as that movie.
John Carter has been mooted for a film adaptation for many years, and the source material is believed to be the father of most of today’s modern sci-fi films, from Star Wars through to Avatar. The film was brought in on a budget of at least $200 million (with some saying it cost over $300 million to get it into cinemas), and with the likes of Pixar’s best behind it, the film is expected to clean up at the box office. So why is it released in March and not summer or Christmas like most other blockbusters? The main answer is that Disney had a billion dollar success in the same release slot a couple of years ago with Alice In Wonderland, so they’re hoping to repeat that here, although some may suggest Disney is aware of the film’s weaknesses and knows it’s less likely to get crowded out now than it would in a couple months time.
In the film American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) gets transported to Mars via a medallion he finds in a cave of gold. Once transported to the Red Planet (Barsoom), he finds that he has virtual superpowers due to the comparative lack of gravity. He is then captured by Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks (green, six-limbed creatures), with the rest of the film seeing Carter getting involved with the warring factions of Mars, who are miraculously very human-like, none more so than Martian Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). I’m not going to bore you with all the names and who’s who, but all you need to know is that the Tharks are six limbed, green creatures, while the goodies wear blue and baddies wear red, which makes it easy for the Tharks to differentiate between the different human-looking factions when they decide to join in the battle to save the planet!
What’s right with the film? With its huge budget the film looks spectacular. The effects are incredible and the Martian creatures look amazing, especially the frog-like dog with teeth (Woola) who befriends John Carter. A strong British contingent in the cast helps to hold things together, with Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Mark Strong and Dominic West all excelling in their roles. The lead Tharks, voiced by Willem Dafoe and Samantha Norton, also bring a bit of heart to the film.
What’s wrong with it? Well, although the film looks amazing, the 3D was added on after the film was shot, so unfortunately the extra-dimension misses a lot of opportunities. The dialogue is clumsy and unfortunately the lead female, played by Lynn Collins, has to deliver the most unbelievable, clunking dialogue throughout the film, as it’s basically her job to set the scene and background to the events on Mars. Admittedly we need to know all this stuff, but the exposition is laboured and blatant.
Perhaps the film could have taken a leaf out of Star Wars and done the prologue in storyboard form during the opening credits. This could have saved a lot of embarrassment and tightened the film (overlong at 132 mins). Sadly, John Carter goes all-out to deliver every cliché ever seen on screen. Lynn Collins’ character careers safely from death defying falls into the arms of John Carter more time than I care to remember, and instead of being scared or terrified she simply smiles at him with her loving blue eyes!
The only really believable characters with depth and emotion are the CGI ones, although the character of Sola, as voiced by Samantha Morton, could possibly have been given a touch more depth as her story is perhaps the most powerful. The computer-created creatures generally seem to have more invested in them, which is perhaps due to the film being Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, and one feels that he may be more comfortable with the completely controllable world of CG.
Overall Verdict: Americans will lap it up, children will love it, but for the more discerning among us, this is certainly no Avatar!
Reviewer: Stephen Sclater