Mars attracts

Thomas Haden Church plays a Thark in John Carter.

Who the Thark is this? It's Thomas Haden Church!

Release date: 9 March 2012
12A | 132 minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton

John Carter is an oddly underblown epic, which at least makes a nice change from the overblown bombast that normally parades itself as the sci-fi blockbuster. Based on a series of pulp Edgar Rice Burroughs novels that probably about three people in the audience have heard of, with a nondescript title and no big name stars, it was never going to be a marketing department’s dream. It feels like it needs to be ten times better than your average sci-fi blockbuster to prove itself (or to make a profit on its rumoured $250 million budget).

Luckily, Andrew Stanton’s adaptation is a good film. The question is, is it good enough?

The plot isn’t War And Peace, but there’s a refreshing attempt to produce something with an actual story, interesting characters, true heart and more depth than your average Transformers movie… um, blockbuster. US Civil War soldier John Carter is transported to a Mars of various conflicting races, where trouble is being stirred up by some mysterious, shapeshifting evil guys posing as Martian gods. Then it turns out the accidental method by which Carter made his interplanetary journey is crucial to their plot machinations.

Watch our exclusive Taylor Kitsch interview

The film’s often immense fun, with some outstanding action and effects, clever directorial flourishes from Andrew Stanton, a colourful range of characters and a (clearly Pixar-inspired) comedy alien dog that’s actually funny. The motion-capture Tharks (towering green Martians) are hugely impressive, and, indeed, expressive; they truly do let the heavyweight actors beneath the CG breathe through. The production design – part steampunk, part Hornblower, part John Ford Western – gives the film a pleasingly unique visual quality. A vast, clanking walking city, in particular, is breathtakingly realised.

The trouble comes when the film gets too bogged down with its storytelling, as if it’s trying too hard to avoid accusations of superficiality. There are moments when the film soars, only to stall and sputter on a well-meaning but extraneous – or overlong – character moment. Lengthy exposition scenes and Martian politics are hampered by cod pomposity and the dreaded “silly-made-up-sci-fi-words” disease. The story-within-a-story framing device feels like one gimmick too many. The end result is a film that, despite all the planet-hopping and giant monsters, feels oddly small-scale and insular. The 3D doesn’t add much, either, to be honest, though the film is generally so brightly lit that it doesn’t detract too much. You also have to question whether it was a wise choice to have John Carter riding on his horse round Arizona deserts immediately before he’s taken to Mars; since the Martian scenes were filmed in Arizona too, you can’t help but notice the similarity.

Taylor Kitsch is a slightly bland John Carter, though occasionally his dour John Wayne delivery hits the target, and he perks up as the film reaches its climax, when he looks like he’s on a promise. And what a promise. Lynn Collins’s feisty Dejah Thoris is the best kick-ass sci-fi princess since Leia, and she looks stunning too with her Martian tattoos. Mark Strong as chief baddie is, well, Mark Strong as a chief baddie, which is fair enough.

All in all, this is one trip to Mars you won’t regret.

Dave Golder

Read our John Carter A-Z