DIR: Andrew Stanton WRI: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon PRO: Lindsey Collins, Jim Morris, Bob Roath, Colin Wilson ED: Eric Zumbrunnen DES: Nathan Crowley DOP: Daniel Mindel CAST: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Dominic West, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Bryan Cranston, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Ciaran Hinds, Polly Walker
Bringing with it a set of unreasonably high expectations given it’s reported three hundred million dollar budget, Disney’s John Carter is an old-fashioned science fiction adventure epic wrapped in a 21st Century digital package. A project that has long been in gestation and that has seen several directors and stars come and go, Carter marks the live action début of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, he of Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame and a lifelong fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series. All of this would seem to bode well promising a well crafted, tightly plotted, visually spectacular yarn that will be something quite special.
Opening with a somewhat confusing prologue in which Carter’s nephew called Edgar Rice Burroughs reads the diary of his apparently deceased uncle, the film shifts to the Old West where Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Civil War captain searching for gold, stumbles upon a mysterious cave where he meets a shape-shifting alien known as a Thern and is somehow transported to Mars. On the Red Planet called Barsoom by its inhabitants he discovers that he possesses magical powers and becomes entangled in an inter-species war between the green skinned, four armed warriors known as Tharks and the redskinned humanoid factions of Zodanga and Helium. A reluctant hero in the classical mode, Carter falls in love with Heliums beautiful, feisty Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and is torn between returning to his home planet of Earth or remaining on Mars and fighting to prevent Helium falling into the hands of the evil Zodangans.
John Carter has so much going for it that it’s a real shame that it isn’t more exciting or involving than it is. One of its main problems initially is exposition. In fact an early scene in which the mythology and back-story of the inhabitants of Barsoom is laid out in voice-over sent shivers up my spine recalling the opening scene of David Lynch’s misbegotten 1984 film Dune, a failed big budget adaptation of classic science fiction literature hailed at the time as the ‘new Star Wars’. The film also lacks a memorable villain who we can root against and this is a near fatal flaw the film just about overcomes. Dominic West as the supposedly nefarious Prince of Zodanga is an excellent actor but the character lacks definition whilst the frankly baffling Holy Therns, a bald headed group of mystical alien interventionists led by the ubiquitous Mark Strong are quite colourless. I
It also doesn’t help that the film has an overly familiar feel to it that is the inevitable result of Burroughs source material influencing several generations of science fiction writers and film-makers in the 94 years since Princess of Mars publication from the aforementioned Star Wars to the more recent Avatar. This means that John Carter struggles to distinguish itself stylistically in terms of visuals and story.
All of that aside, what it does have in abundance is a sense of wonder and innocence essential to all fantasy pulp fiction that the film-makers and his capable cast manage to conjure up. In particular there is a graceful sequence, wittily scored to piece of classical music where Carter discovers his gravity defying jumping abilities and any film with an adorably ugly monster/puppy sidekick who follows Carter everywhere or the simply adorable Collins as the Princess of Mars is not completely without merit. Kitsch as the titular protagonist acquits himself well in his first major starring role bringing a nice mixture of decency, bravery and sensitivity to the part, creates a frisky chemistry with Collins in their scenes together whilst demonstrating an able sense of physicality in the role.
The look of the film whilst derivative is occasionally striking with Nathan Crowley’s production design harking back to pre-history, Ancient civilizations and the Industrial Age. and there is a myriad of visual incident and detail to drink in but aside from a gladiatorial sequence involving what can only be called giant, sharp toothed Martian apes and a Braveheart style desert battle in which Carter takes on the Tharks single-handed, the production is somewhat lacking in action but Stanton’s conviction somehow manages to transcend the dull stretches and narrative flaws which gives John Carter a unique charm all of its own.
So no Dune then but not quite Star Wars.
John Carter is released on 9th March 2012