Sheltering in a cave from a band of marauding Apaches, world-weary American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported to the dying planet Mars, named Barsoom by the natives who are fighting their own vicious conflict, where the lighter gravity gives him almost superhuman strength, speed and agility, enabling him to leap tall buildings in a single bound etc.
in a cave from a band of marauding Apaches, world-weary American Civil War
veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transported to the dying
planet Mars, named Barsoom by the natives who are fighting their own vicious
conflict, where the lighter gravity gives him almost superhuman strength, speed
and agility, enabling him to leap tall buildings in a single bound etc. Or it would if there were any tall
buildings to leap on this parched desert world.
First a prisoner then a champion of the aggressive, giant,
green-skinned, four-armed Tharks, led by warlord Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), Carter soon finds
himself embroiled in the war between the red-skinned humanoid cities of Helium
(the goodies) and Zadonga (the baddies) when he saves scantily-clad,
red-skinned Helium princess Deja Thoris (Lynn
Collins) from a fate worse than death.
An arranged marriage to Dominic West.
Manipulated by the evil shape-shifting Matai Shang (Mark Strong), West’s brutal Zadongan
king Sab Than is bent on world domination and only Helium stands against
him. By offering his daughter in
marriage, Helium’s king Tardos Mors (Ciaran
Hinds) hopes to save his city from certain destruction. But Shang has no intention of allowing
peace to break out.
Despite Tarkas’ sentiments that he “Let red men
kill red men until only Tharks remain!” Carter finds himself reluctantly drawn
into the fight. Having already
lost one war (he fought for the Confederacy), he’s not about to make the same
mistake twice and sets out to get the girl, save the planet and make it home to
Geeks of the world rejoice!
Finally, after abortive animations, numerous false starts
and decades in development hell, pulp king Edgar
Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling hero John Carter of Mars and his adventures
on the alien planet Barsoom finally makes it to the silver screen (we don’t
talk about DTV-hell pimps the Asylum and their cheapo 2009 knock-off Princess Of Mars, no, that never
happened). And it’s only taken him
a century. But has it been worth
Having inspired every major swashbuckling space opera from
Flash Gordon and Star Wars right up to Avatar by way of Stargate, fanboy expectations for John Carter have been sky-high and it just about delivers. Pixar’s
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) serves up a pleasingly pulpy slice of
swashbuckling sci-fi derring-do with Taylor Kitsch’s square-jawed hero taking
on alien armies with just a sword and the ability to rock a loincloth. While Mars itself disappointedly just
looks like more Arizona (where Carter’s story begins), Stanton’s vision of a
steampunk alien society of walking cities and solar-powered, anti-gravity,
gossamer flying machines is beautiful and his alien creatures, from the
green-skinned Tharks, their lizard-looking horses, the yeti-like creatures
Carter battles in the arena and even Woola, Carter’s cute, kiddie-pleasing
alien dog, are a triumph of CGI.
Particularly good is Stanton’s introduction of Carter’s super powers
which involves our befuddled hero repeatedly pratfalling as he doesn’t know his
own strength and misjudges the Martian gravity.
While the film is too long, takes far too long to get
Carter to Mars and suffers from sillynameitis,
a common malady in sci-fi stories where everyone has a ridiculous monicker, John Carter is immense fun. Kitsch makes a suitably rugged hero,
Collins looks very good in very little, swinging a sword as the warrior
princess and Willem Dafoe and Samantha
Morton bring flesh and blood to the CGI aliens. Dominic West and Mark Strong again just play Dominic
West and Mark Strong as the bad guys but they’re very good at playing Dominic
West and Mark Strong and look like they’re enjoying themselves as does James Purefoy who’s on scene-sealing
form as the Helium king’s right-hand man.
The narrative’s framing device, Carter’s nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), discovers his uncle’s
journal and reads of his otherworldy exploits after Carter’s mysterious death,
is well-realised and sets the film up for potential sequels (which given
Disney’s woeful marketing already look increasingly unlikely).
My only complaints are churlish at best. Watching John Carter does inspire an almost overwhelming sense of déjà
vu. As opposed to Deja
Thoris. God, I can’t believe I
made such a crap, crass, obvious joke, I apologise from the bottom of my
heart. We’re just a little too
used to scantily-clad alien barbarian warriors thanks to Flash Gordon. After William Shatner’s and Sam Worthington’s romantic antics on Star Trek and Avatar, we’re used to seeing our heroes get it on with hot alien
chicks. And as for astrally
projecting yourself across space and time, Stargate’s
got that sewn up. Admittedly, John
Carter did all these things first but we’ve had 100 years of everyone from Alex Raymond to George Lucas to James
Cameron picking over Edgar Rice Burroughs’ bones and nicking all his best
ideas. The film also feels just a
little too po-faced, a little too serious. It could have done with being a bit camper, a bit more
fun. Thankfully however, Disney
haven’t made it too child-friendly so there’s plenty of stabbings,
decapitations and brandings.
Whether or not the film will find an appreciative
mainstream audience is anyone’s guess but it certainly deserves too. It’s smart, ambitious and unlike most
blockbuster movies it doesn’t feel the need to treat its audience like idiots
and spoon-feed them information; it credits you with enough intelligence to
figure out what’s going on and to keep up. It’s not rocket science. Mainly because space rockets hadn’t been invented yet when
Rice Burroughs came up with the story.
Like the original novels, John Carter is just damn good fun.