The fact that it’s taken over 80 years for the powers that be to make a film from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of Barsoom novels means that it’s been a helluva wait for the fans. If you think Indy 4 took its time getting into theatres, just try to be an enthusiast of Burroughs’ ‘other’ (read: not Tarzan) literary hero.
The fact is that an adaptation of ‘A Princess of Mars’ was always going to be a risky undertaking. Disney reportedly spent a good $250 million on John Carter, and it’s certainly visible onscreen. This is a polished, epic depiction of an alien landscape, up there with Avatar in terms of science fiction world-building. A bit too polished, some might say.
John Carter is a veteran of the American Civil War who’s bitter and resentful of the sacrifices he had to make for his country. Thus, when he’s whisked away to Mars only to discover another civil war taking place, he’s less than enthusiastic about taking up arms to help anybody. As far as reluctant heroes go, John’s given a decent enough back-story to make us understand why he wouldn’t fight. Taylor Kitsch is… good enough in the role. He doesn’t let the film down, but neither does he enable it to soar to great heights.
The supporting cast are more successful. Lynn Collins is great as Dejah Thoris, the aforementioned princess, and it’s nice to see that effort has been made to ensure that she’s not merely a damsel in distress. Well, in the broader scope of things, yes, she is a damsel in distress. But she’s portrayed as a brilliant engineer, leader and warrior, which is just enough to raise the source material from a sexist quagmire. Mark Strong plays YET ANOTHER bald bad guy, and he’s great as always. Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton perform capably as Sola and Tars Takas, two of the green-skinned Tharks, and I didn’t recognise them at all, which is a nice change from ‘stunt’ voice casting.
The visual effects are practically flawless, and it’s nice to see such a pricey cinematic endeavour actually looking like money well spent (as opposed to, say, G.I. Joe or Green Lantern). The action scenes are well handled, even if there’s nothing truly awe-inspiring. Director Andrew Stanton shows us that his true skill still lies with directing CGI creations, as John’s Martian ‘dog’ continually steals the show from the humanoid characters.
The problem is that, whilst it may be more subtly nuanced than Avatar, John Carter falls a bit flat. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly what the problem is, but it probably has to do with the pages and pages of expository dialogue required to explain what is going on. There’s also a sense that, whilst the film jumps around a lot, it still manages to be sluggish. This, perhaps, is the result of too many rewrites, which is of course a mainstay of such big budget productions.
John Carter is not, as some would have it, an out-and-out awful film. There is one particular action scene that is both awe-inspiring and emotionally affecting, and it serves as a glimpse of what could have been. As a piece of epic sci-fi, it’s a good way to spend two hours, if only because it’s so rare that such films get made (outside of Star Wars/Star Trek anyway). I should point out that, whilst fairly pedestrian, the film never comes close to the woeful Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which somehow continue to attract audiences despite being, on just about every conceivable front, shit films.
Worth the 80 year wait? Probably not. But it’s an amiable time-waster with some great visuals.Rating: