Director: Andrew Stanton
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ series of novels, which were published between 1912 and 1964, have been a tremendous and almost immeasurable influence on the development of science fiction. Without them, there would be no Star Wars, no Star Trek and no Avatar, to name but a few. This influence is worthy of respect, but it also makes the inevitable first adaptation of the Barsoom series seem like an afterthought. There’s not a lot new to see in John Carter, and what you do see has been done before and done better.
Right from the opening scene, John Carter’s problems are clear. A ship belonging to the red Martians (led by Dominic West’s Sab Than) attacks a ship belonging to the blue Martians. The two have fought for dominion of Mars, but Sab Than has help in the form of power bestowed upon him by Matai Shang (Mark Strong, looking like the world’s most evil adherent of the Hare Krishna). We can tell these are the bad guys because they speak with stiff-upper-lip English accents. Do we ever learn Matai Shang’s motives? Only vaguely. Do we ever care? Not a chance. We then cut to Earth of 1881, where John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is an explorer who has suddenly died. His nephew Edgar (Daryl Sabara) is given his journal, in which is detailed Carter’s journey (via out-of-body-telekinetic-jumpy-thing) to Mars. On his arrival he’s captured by the Thark tribe, 12-foot high green-skinned aliens with four arms led by Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Whilst the broody and sullen Carter inevitably wins them over, the blue Martian city of Helium (yes, it’s called Helium!) is under threat from the red Martians. It can only be saved by Sab Than marrying the blue princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Once again, do we care? That’d be a ‘no’.
John Carter never stops to tell us why we should be invested in these creatures, or to answer some niggling questions. How can Carter breathe in the Martian atmosphere? Since when do rivers flow on Mars? And why is Ciarán Hinds in that ridiculous costume?! Hinds, in the role of the blue Martian leader, is one of several actors (Strong, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston) wasted here as supports. Kitsch is a fairly blank slate; he can flex his abs and grunt on cue but why we should be interested in him remains a mystery. Flashbacks to his past in the middle of battle scenes arouse confusion rather than sympathy. Meanwhile, Collins does her best Helen Mirren impression before falling for Carter like a good little post-feminist princess! This is a Disney film, so the romance has to be included, as does a CG dog-alien sidekick, who is probably the most expressive and interesting character in the film.
John Carter is based on the first Barsoom book ‘A Princess Of Mars’, and was directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton, the man that made us weep for fish (Finding Nemo) and robots (Wall-E). His first foray into live action filmmaking can only dream of the elegant pathos of his animated triumphs. The direction is expansive but unremarkable; unmemorable action scenes come and go with few thrills. Co-writers Stanton, Mark Andrews and Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael Chabon emphasize babble over battle; strange names and concepts are thrown at the audience in the hopes of confusing them enough to distract from the lack of interesting characters. Like its title character, John Carter jumps all over the place, unsure of where to land. The landscapes are as blank as the actor’s faces, and they jump about massive sets and fight ridiculous creatures that look like Phantom Menace offcuts. A rousing adventure could be made of Burroughs’ novels, but their wide influence suggests that this may be moot. John Carter is just too late to the party; there’s nothing here of note beyond the huge budget and the failed ambition of a studio struggling in the post-Pirates, post-Twilight haze. To judge from this uninterested mess, less is truly more.