Fantasy Sci-fi adventure John Carter has been one of the most excitedly anticipated films of 2012. Directed by Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (who was also at the helm of Finding Nemo and WALL-E), the film is based on a novel written in the early 20th century by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was produced by our old friends Walt Disney Pictures.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a veteran of the American Civil War who has fallen on hard times. His wife and child murdered, he spends his days searching for a legendary cave of gold. One day while being chased by a troop of cavalrymen (and then by some angry Native Americans), he stumbles across the cave. From there he is transported, seemingly by magic, to a planet populated by 12 foot tall, green-skinned, blue-blooded aliens known as Tharks.
He quickly discovers that he is actually on Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it), and that it is far from being the dead planet that Earth astronomers had assumed. It is populated not only by Tharks, but by a wide range of other strange animals (including monstrous white apes and cute dog-like lizards) and by the Heliumites and the Zodangans (both humanoid Martians). Carter meets up with Heliumite Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and finds himself smack in the middle of a Martian war. At first all he wants to do is find a way to get back to Earth, but as he becomes entangled in love and war, he begins to find himself feeling at home on the red planet.
Technically, this film has been nearly a century in the making. The first of Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom novels’, A Princess of Mars (upon which John Carter is based), was published in 1917, and had been serialized in 1912 as Under the Moons of Mars. In 1931, Burroughs was approached by Looney Tunes director Robert Clampett, who wanted to make an animated version of the book, but the plans eventually fell through. If they hadn’t, A Princess of Mars could have ended up being the first ever animated feature film, beating Disney’s Snow White, which was released in 1937.
Despite being ripe for adaptation, and supplying inspiration to generations of science fiction film-makers, fans of the books have had to wait until 2012 to see the world of Barsoom brought to life on the big screen. Predictably, the film makes brilliant use of CGI; the Tharks are very well realised, but it is the wide shots of the Martian landscape are especially breath-taking. The Zodangan moving city, which crawls across the desert like a spider, is also impressive, but the real star of the CGI show is John Carter’s best friend; the sappy half-dog half-lizard named Woola is probably the best animated character of the film.
All special effects aside, John Carter is certainly a ripping yarn. Some scenes are incredibly well executed; for example, the scene in which John Carter initially has trouble walking on Mars because of the low gravity, but quickly learns that he can jump hundreds of feet into the air, and the scene where he fights off a horde of aliens single-handed, which is intercut with his memories of burying the bodies of his family. However, much of the acting feels very stilted; Taylor Kitsch does a good job at first, portraying Carter as a gravelly, damaged Southern ex-soldier, but his onscreen partnership with Collins is lukewarm. The pair fails to make the viewer really believe that John Carter and Dejah Thoris are in love (perhaps because it’s difficult to emote properly when you’re standing in front of a green screen).
As for the inevitable comparisons to Avatar, they are far from being unfounded; the two films share almost the same storyline and even similar characters. This is only to be expected considering the amount of films that have been influenced by the Barsoom novels, but, due to Avatar beating John Carter to the punch, it seems likely that if asked to choose, many people will pick James Cameron’s blue-tinted eco-adventure as the better of the two. Avatar certainly makes better use of 3D; the extra dimension doesn’t really add that much to the visual aesthetic of John Carter, and sometimes seems like the pointless add-on that so many critics say it is.
While it is very entertaining and pretty to look at, unfortunately John Carter never truly thrills. With its cute alien dogs, tough (but beautiful) Alien princess and even a classic ‘gate-crashed wedding’ scene, the film can be good fun, but, all in all, it’s nothing special in the sci-fi stakes. However, the film allows the viewer to imagine a universe in which there could be other habitable planets supporting humanoid life in our own solar system, which, for a little while, is enjoyably companionable.
Best performance: Taylor Kitsch
Best scene: John Carter fights an alien horde single-handed as he remembers burying his wife and child.
Best computer generated character: Woola the lizard/dog.