The story of John Carter – a disillusioned Earthman who finds himself on an alien world, caught between two factions, trying to discover himself and unexpectedly falling for one of the locals – may seem familiar to you (especially if you’ve seen Avatar), but this is no mere knock-off. In fact, you’d have it the wrong way round.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series was initially published way back in 1912. That means that for every part of John Carter that feels familiar, or looks like it was inspired by Star Wars, Avatar, or any other sci-fi… well, Carter did it first, and it’s entirely possible none of those films would exist without his Martian adventures, so it’s about time he got a run out on the big screen himself.
Taylor Kitsch plays the titular hero, an American soldier who, after suffering a loss, gives up on the Civil War and begins looking out for number one, primarily by hunting for gold. It’s not long before he inadvertently wakes up on the red planet and gets caught up in an entirely different – but strangely familiar – civil war between two humanoid races (they each wear red or blue, just in case you don’t get it), and the more primitive and alien Tharks (the Native Americans of our heavy-handed analogy).
Carter has a great cast, with Kitsch an appropriately rugged hero, and Willem Defoe giving a good performance through the CGI as Tars Tarkis, while Mark Strong continues to be Hollywood’s go-to-bad-guy.
It is, however, often the support cast made up of cult favourites that shine the brightest, including Dominic West (The Wire), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and a particularly vibrant and criminally underused James Purefoy (fans of Rome will also get a kick out of seeing Purefoy and Cairan Hinds – or rather Marc Anthony and Julius Ceaser – reunited on the big screen.)
It’s also a truly beautiful film to behold. Director Andrew Stanton – a Pixar legend helming his first live-action film – and his design team have created a wonderfully alien landscape, and the level of detail on the alien ships and cities is breathtaking. The 3D sadly doesn’t pop as much as you’d hope, but it’s still wonderful to look at.
Given the age of these stories, Stanton’s direction gives John Carter an appropriately old-fashioned, matinee feel, and there are moments where you can’t help but get swept up in the high adventure and sci-fi swashbuckling.
Unfortunately, the film is often stalled by a script that too often gets bogged down with establishing the races, history and mythos of Mars (or Barsoom, in the local tongue), and there are too many moments where the action halts and momentum is lost. There’s also some clunky sci-fi gubbins in the dialogue that brings to mind Harrison Ford’s legendary line (referring to the dialogue in Star Wars), “George, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!” Still, the classy cast put their all into it anyway.
The action, when it hits, is generally a success, with the stand-outs being an arena battle against two terrifying alien apes, and a particularly rousing fight between Carter and a hoard of attacking aliens, tenderly intercut with flashbacks to Carter’s past grief.
Carter’s alien dog-type pal is also a terrific creation, one with which Stanton’s Pixar history comes into its own, as the voiceless creature is developed into a fairly good character in its own right (better drawn, in all honesty, than some of the human ones!)
John Carter aims high, with a clear eye to establishing a franchise, but one can’t help but feel they should have tightened up this instalment first, rather than worrying about laying groundwork for a second. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniably stirring old-school feel to proceedings, and it’s the sort of hammy space-opera that we don’t really get any more.
In a blockbuster landscape that’s obsessed with everything being “dark”, Carter is a rare ray of cheesy sunshine, and there’s undeniable fun to be had. We just wish it had a little more punch and little less paunch over its running time.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th March 2012 by Disney.
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