(M) Taylor Kitsch, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Lynn Collins
Academy Award-winning director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo WALL-E) moves from celebrated animated films to live action with this pulpy space romp.
After the highly original WALL-E, this is unfortunately a disappointment. Convoluted exposition, clunky, earnest dialogue and material that reminds one of everything from Avatar to Star Wars don’t bode well for Stanton’s crossover into live action.
If you have read the near century-old pulp sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs on which this convoluted and earnest film is based, you may find it your cup of tea but if Disney wants to convert this into a lucrative franchise (if internet scuttlebutt is to be believed) it will need to appeal to those who haven’t read the books as well.
The film covers so much ground editorially in an attempt to cram in as much “sweeping action and adventure” that little things like character development have been sadly and critically overlooked.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is the story of a Confederate soldier in 19th century Virginia, transported to Mars (known to its warring locals as Barsoom) after touching a mysterious, glowing amulet.
Once on the red planet he discovers not only that the difference in gravity has increased his strength and agility (meaning he is now potentially a pretty awesome superhero who is literally able to leap amazing distances) but also that he is not alone. In fact Barsoom is populated by several warring tribes and species.
The technologically advanced humanoid Red Men of Zodanga (who live in a moving city that mines the surface of Barsoom) and Helium are embroiled in a cataclysmic conflict which threatens to destroy all life on the planet. Neither group gets on at all well with the Tharks — one of many primitive tribes of tall, four-limbed Green Martians.
Pulling all the strings are a strange group of shape-shifting, teleporting, all-powerful and spiritual beings called the Holy Therns — glowing blue space monks led by bad guy actor for hire Mark Strong.
In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realises that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because from the debut of the trailer it has felt like a knock-off of James Cameron’s Avatar. Its strikingly similar fish-out-of-water premise — even down to John Carter ending up being a champion for the aliens he initially doesn’t understand — feels too familiar to be original and compelling.
The film is ultimately about a self-interested nihilist who becomes an interplanetary superhero, a theme well-worn by most screenwriters and, although Stanton has an obvious love of the source material, it’s tricky to adapt something that has been ripped off by writers for a century.
Disney’s attempt at Avatar is all well and good, but it will be interesting to see how the Mouse House’s core audience (families) will embrace this film and its third act with some fairly hard core, relentless violence. It is rated M, so already excludes the 12-year old-boys who would be attracted to the superhero oeuvre.
Carter has no problem offing Barsoom’s inhabitants without mercy when crossed (parents beware of a head-lopping and Carter emerging from a creature’s insides once he has killed it).
Carter as a hero is more cut from the Conan the Barbarian mould than Prince Charming.
Pixar films have produced some of the most memorable and beloved characters in the last 20 years. Unfortunately John Carter is not one of these characters.
The use of CGI is stunning and seamless, with elaborate battle scenes and spectacular special effects and characters (most of whom are better written and cooler than the flesh and blood characters). John Carter is nothing if not nice to look at; just don’t expect to feel emotionally invested in what’s going on in front of you.