Edgar Rice Burroughs was an author who a century ago gave us the bare-chested, long-haired hero Tarzan. But while Lord Greystoke is his most well known creation, his lesser known Princess Of Mars protagonist John Carter has gone on to influence virtually every sci-fi fantasy filmmaker – everything from Star Wars to Avatar wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Burroughs’ vision.
The problem with making an adaptation of Burroughs’ Barsoom saga is that Star Wars and the like are so intrinsically bound in the general public’s collective consciousness, that there’s the danger of it feeling like it’s going over familiar ground. Can Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar greats Wall-E and Finding Nemo give John Carter a 21st Century spit and polish?
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch – so gravelly-throated, he could pull voice duty for Batman) is a cavalry officer turned gold-digger running from conscription at the time of the American Civil War. After busting out of jail several times, he finds an amulet which transports him to the barren deserts of Mars (Barsoom to its natives).
There Carter discovers that due to the relative gravity he has super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but before he can get much further he’s captured by the Tharks – a barbarous tribe of 10-foot tall four-armed, green-skinned creatures.
He soon learns that Mars is under threat due to the conflict raging between the people of Zodanga led by the ruthless Sab Than (Dominic West) and the peaceful people of Helium led by King Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his spirited philosopher-warrior daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins)
Can Carter earn the respect of the Tharks, win the hand of the princess and save Mars from destruction?
It’s the Tharks which are the highlight of the film. The attention to detail in both their culture (which views weakness as a cardinal sin even among their hatchlings) and their character design makes them a believable and authentic native race, rendered perfectly by Pixar and given even more life through excellent vocal performances from Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church.
There’s something a bit Phantom Menace about its aesthetic – all dusty wastelands and colourful costumes but where Episode 1 floundered by prioritising good looks over compelling character, John Carter succeeds in blending the two together well. That’s not to say that its effects have been neglected, quite the opposite. Whether it’s the delicate dragonfly wings of a Heliumite airship or the slavering jaws of a gigantic white ape, Carter impresses visually.
Away from the Tharks, the story becomes less interesting and often quite confusing with Sab Than of the Zodangans threatening planetary domination with the aid of a super-weapon unless Princess Dejah agrees to marry him. To further complicate matters, he’s being manipulated by a race of enigmatic super-beings called the Therns led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) but quite what their motivation is or why Carter remains a constant obstacle is never explained.
Stanton excels in giving characters life (including a slobbery 10 legged giant puppy creature – cute and adorable in exactly the ways that Jar Jar Binks wasn’t) but the action scenes never quite live up to their promise. Epic conflicts which should rival the intensity and duration of something from Lord Of The Rings are rendered mere scuffles; John Carter’s fights in the arena against giant white apes are all too brief and lack any sense of sustained peril.
Though its principal human cast are largely unknowns they acquit themselves well. Kitsch makes an excellent gruff leading man and has great chemistry with Lynn Collins’ Princess Dejah – a competent, intelligent and kickass Amazonian heroine – doubtless the fuel for many a teenage fantasy to come.
However, the overcomplicated plot makes it difficult to maintain any significant momentum and some scenes should have been shelved entirely – notably the unnecessary opening credits sequence or the framing device involving Carter’s nephew, the young Burroughs himself.
Despite some blips, John Carter is an entertaining, colourful adventure, full of likeable and memorable characters and enough charm and spirit to make it worth seeking out. For preference, go for the 2D version – the 3D while competent doesn’t add anything to the spectacle.