John Carter (2012), Disney’s latest 3D blockbuster based upon the famous sci-fi series by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, has all the necessary ingredients for a huge, CGI-heavy hit – minus, ironically, originality. Despite the work of Burroughs inspiring numerous sci-fi writers and filmmakers (including George Lucas and James Cameron), Carter’s first cinematic appearance suffers slightly from over-familiarity, mostly due to the fact that the film has taken a century to make the leap from page to screen.
Starring Taylor Kitsch as the eponymous John Carter of Mars (né John Carter of Earth), Andrew Stanton’s $250 million sci-fi epic follows the titular American Civil War hero as he is transported to the Martian homeworld (named ‘Barsoom’ by its inhabitants) after discovering a sacred cave in Virginia. Upon teleporting to Earth’s neighbouring planet, he finds an alien world at war, divided by a bloody, ten thousand year conflict between two red-skinned humanoid clans: the Zodangans (lead by Dominic West’s camp villain Sab Than) and the Heliumites (represented by the beautiful Princess Deja Thoris, played by Lynn Collins).
Caught in the crossfire are the two-horned, four-armed, 15ft tall Tharks – driven by their king Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) – who capture Carter with the explicit desire of turning him into a weapon of war. Uninhibited by Earth’s greater gravity, Carter wields extreme strength and the ability to cover huge distances in a single leap, and following a chance encounter with Princess Deja, Carter strives to unite the Tharks and Heliumites in the war against the Zodangans and their godlike allies, the Therns.
As is plain to see, the first difficulty for any filmmaker attempting to adapt Burroughs’ Barsoom series (with John Carter based upon first entry A Princess of Mars) is to succinctly cover all the necessary back story relating to the various warring Martian races. Stanton does an admirable job of cramming the text into a two-hour runtime, condensing it into a Disney-familiar narrative of a young hero saving a princess from an unenviable fate. That said, young and old may well find themselves somewhat perplexed by the Martian flora, factions and rituals.
Jargon aside, John Carter is an enjoyable piece of mainstream escapist cinema, its often illogical plot held together by a decent cast, some well-placed Flash Gordon-esque moments of humour and – unlike Cameron’s 2009 ‘gamechanger’ Avatar – a strict mandate to never take itself too seriously. Younger children may well struggle to keep up with all of the film’s plot developments, but are equally unlikely to succumb to boredom thanks to some enticing production design and well-choreographed set pieces.
The central cast are adequate, if unspectacular (Mark Strong appears throughout in his now customary role as prime antagonist), but it is Dafoe and his Thark tribe that provide the film’s finest moments. Forget the strange blue cat-like Na’vi inhabitants of Pandora – the native, green-skinned Martians of John Carter provide all the necessary laughs, thrills and exotic anthropological intrigue that a fantastical sci-fi requires.
Burroughs’ pioneering prescience is the only real sticking point for what is otherwise an engaging, well-meaning epic. It is a shame then, after having influenced nearly every great sweeping sci-fi film of the last 100 years, that John Carter’s story and mythology cannot help but feel dated and old hat. With luck, Stanton’s child-friendly stance and the film’s light-hearted tone may just be enough to ensure a return ticket for Mars’ latest hero, despite its enormous budget.