John Carter REVIEW

Taylor Kitsch in John Carter.

Puts your bad day at the office into perspective, doesn't it?


Release Date: 2 July 2012
2012 | 12 | 132 minutes | £15.99 (DVD)/£21.99 (Blu-ray)
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast:Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Thomas Haden Church, Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston

John Carter might go down as the biggest box office flop of the year, but it certainly won’t go down as the year’s worst film. The near-hysterical reaction to Carter’s domestic box office shortfall saw Joe Public and mainstream-media-types unite in a Joker-like moment of simply wanting to watch the Mouse House burn – or at least end up with $250 million worth of egg on its face.

It didn’t help that Disney seemed to lack confidence in Andrew Stanton’s extravagant adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s genre-defining 1917 opus A Princess Of Mars, with a series of uninspiring (and somewhat misleading) trailers culminating in the baffling decision to mask its sci-fi trappings by dropping any hint “Of Mars” from the title. Films about bank managers are called John Carter, not epic world-spanning sci-fi movies.

So John Carter is that guy who got bullied at school for having the expensive but utterly uncool shoes… which is unfair, because it’s a work that’s worthy of your attention, if not necessarily your affection. Andrew Stanton’s first live-action film is far from perfect, but his passion for the project shines through like the blistering sun on Barsoom.

If you’ve seen or read a sci-fi yarn in the past century, chances are John Carter’s story will sound familiar. Confederate soldier Carter is transported to Mars (aka Barsoom) after discovering a portal to another world in an Arizona cave. Once there, his increased strength makes him a god amongst four-armed-Martians and humanoid guyliner fanatics, and potential saviour of a world under threat by a shapeshifting bunch of Right Said Fred rejects.

Of course, it’s more complex than that, and the way the film portrays the complexities of the script is arguably its biggest failing. It opens in the midst of a battle between two factions we have no knowledge of, or interest in, which sets something of a template for the remainder of the story. So the Therns are manipulating the Zodangans, who are oppressing the Helliumites, who are in a civil war with the Tharks? Who are all these people? And why should we care? Progression from one scene to the next is extremely clumsy throughout, with the film frequently stopping dead to drop its trousers and take an exposition dump by the side of a dusty Martian highway. The stop-start nature of the storytelling kills the joyous pace achieved in the frequently spectacular action sequences, while a framing device that bookends the main narrative is an inexplicably arbitrary addition.

For a film set in a strange land, with totally alien cultures, creatures and customs, John Carter doesn’t have a particularly compelling sense of the exotic, either. Mars should be full of wonders, but instead it’s a dust bowl, with endless stretches of identikit mountainscapes. Why go all the way to Mars if it’s simply going to stand in for the Utah desert? It’s a shame, because there is some fantastic design work on display – such as the stunning flying vessels and the electric-blue Thern technology.
Still, Stanton is one of the Pixar brains trust, and despite his film’s many shortcomings that magic touch is more than evident. An early prison break on terra firma is the slapstick equivalent of the broken record, with Carter making increasingly absurd dashes for freedom. Mutant road-runner pooch Woola, meanwhile, raises spirits whenever he’s onscreen with his blissfully gormless expression and unshakeable loyalty.

Though why he’s quite so loyal we’ve no idea. Carter is a bland hero, Taylor Kitsch lacking the charm and charisma required to carry you through his epic journey. Fortunately, Lynn Collins is a revelation as Martian princess Dejah Thoris: it’s one of sci-fi’s truly great female roles, and reason enough to watch the film on its own. There are also the seeds of an entertaining bromance between Barsoomian warrior Tars Tarkas and Carter, but Dominic West occupies a pantomime villain role – his strings pulled by the vastly more interesting Martian manipulator Matai Shang.

Considering it stems from a story that helped define a genre limited only by imagination, John Carter is a curiously dull film. It was way back in 1932 that Looney Tunes director Robert Clampett first tried to bring Carter to the screen, but after finally seeing that dream become reality we can’t help but feel that a few more years in Development Hell couldn’t have hurt.

Extras:

Stanton’s commentary is fascinating, but the highlight is the 20 minutes of deleted scenes, complete with optional commentary from Stanton where he mentions elements he would expand upon/include in the sequel at least half a dozen times. Ah well. “100 Years In The Making” is a 10-minute featurette about bringing John Carter to the screen which should have been longer, but leaves you with a distinct impression that all involved were extremely passionate about the project (including Jon Favreau, who was going to direct at one stage). “360º Of John Carter” is a 34-minute “day in the life” documentary that covers all facets of production. We wouldn’t bother with the two minutes of bloopers – the film is enough of a Smeg Up.

Jordan Farley

For an alternate perspective, read our John Carter review from the theatrical release.
Watch an alternate opening for John Carter.
Read a piece about A Princess Of Mars by Geoff Ryman.
Read our 26-entry John Carter A-Z.