Outside, it’s a grey, dreary UK November day. But inside a screening room somewhere in London’s Soho area, the atmosphere’s muggy with anticipation. Hacks from all over Europe have gathered to see a 20-minute preview of John Carter, the forthcoming Disney sci-fi epic directed by Pixar genius Andrew Stanton.
Now, opening up any public meeting with a PowerPoint presentation is a risky move, and enough to have even the most stern-willed journo diving for the nearest bomb shelter. In this instance, however, Stanton’s introduction to his live-action debut was so filled with passion and enthusiasm that any fears of boring slideshows and waffling corporate patter were immediately forgotten.
Stanton spoke of his boyhood love for John Carter, the character originally created back in the early 20th century by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, and how he began thinking about a big-screen adaptation of the hero’s adventures during the production of Wall-E back in 2006.
His introduction was swift, eager and refreshingly candid. He spoke of John Carter’s arduous shoot in the Utah desert, and how, when looking around one day at the various actors standing around in the blazing heat in motion capture outfits (or “weird gimp suits,” to use his own words), he had a brief crisis of confidence: “There were days when I wondered what the hell I was doing,” he chuckled.
When Stanton began to show off stills and production art from the production, however, it became apparent that the combination of his eye for movement and characterisation, combined with production designer Nathan Crowley’s talent for spectacular imagery, has resulted in a film that matches the fantastical with the realistic.
Great though John Carter’s pedigree is, it’s up against some stern opposition next year. Its March release window gives it a clear distance from 2012’s big hitter, The Dark Knight Rises, but it still has to contend with the likes of Clash Of The Titans 2 and The Hunger Games, both released the same month, and both courting broad (though subtly different) multiplex audiences.
And while the John Carter series of books undoubtedly has its own devoted following, the property isn’t a sequel or based on a current bestseller, making it a quite unusual proposition in a year absolutely full of big-name franchises.
These are all thoughts quietly percolating in my mind after Stanton’s introduction has finished, and the lights in the screening room begin to dim. Does John Carter have what it takes to cut through the white noise of next year’s big releases?
The opening scene of Disney’s preview provides the first surprise. Beginning with what we were earlier told was a sequence from near John Carter’s opening, it introduces Taylor Kitsch as Carter, a veteran of the US Civil War who’s fallen into the hands of the dastardly Colonel Powell, played by the reliably brilliant Bryan Cranston.
What’s established here is just how gritty and raw its depiction of 19th century America is – Kitsch looks grizzled and exhausted as Carter, though that’s due in part because Powell’s had his soldiers tie him to a chair. Then comes a second surprise: the film looks unvarnished and unromanticised, but it’s still full of humour. Powell’s monologue is constantly interrupted by Carter’s escape attempts, which are edited with amusing brutality. This sequence is relatively brief, but serves an important purpose, depicting Carter as a man at his lowest ebb; scruffy, beaten and broke after a traumatic wartime experience.
Next, we’re swept along to a sequence later on in the film, where Carter’s been transported to Mars. There, he discovers that the planet’s gravity allows him to jump extraordinary heights and distances – something that immediately attracts the locals, the fierce Thark tribe. After a brief struggle, Carter meets Thark warrior Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Defoe and unrecognisable beneath a layer of digital paint.
Unlike the graceful, slender tribes of Avatar, the four-armed Green Martians of John Carter are big, ugly and ungainly. Their skin is green and slippery like avocado dip, their faces punctuated by a pair of jutting, tusk-like appendages. Their designs carry echoes of those seen in old John Carter Marvel comics, while at the same time possessing a style that is unmistakeably reminiscent of Pixar’s other work.
This is particularly evident in the scene where Carter encounters a nest of baby Martians. Cute, huddled and goblin-like, they’re a genuinely captivating creation. So too is Woola, a dog-like creature that quickly becomes Carter’s most loyal friend; a brief scene where Woola constantly heads Carter off as he tries to escape a Martian stronghold, his tongue lolling, apparently thinking he’s playing hide and seek, is both faithful to the book and brought to life in a manner that is unmistakeably Stanton’s.
The preview’s stand out sequence, though, saw Carter take on an entire horde of Green Martians in a spectacular sword fight that will have fans of pulp epics like Conan tittering with glee. It’s brilliant not just because the bodies pile up and the blue blood flows in great geysers across the screen, but also because Stanton chooses to intercut the fight with a tragic event from Carter’s past. Even taken in isolation from the finished film, it’s a resonant, exciting scene that hints at a great live-action director at work.
A final sequence, which sees Carter attempt to fight a gigantic White Ape, doesn’t quite have the impact previous scene, perhaps because it’s faintly reminiscent of a similar moment in Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones. Nevertheless, the White Ape it introduces is an engagingly monstrous creation, and again uncannily similar to the behemoth from Burroughs’ original books.
What’s notable about the preview as a whole is that John Carter’s version of Mars is so different from previous big-screen interpretations. The blazing red ochres of Total Recall or Mission To Mars are entirely absent: Stanton’s Mars (or Barsoom, as it’s known to its residents) is a dustbowl of declining civilisations and crumbling, majestic architecture looming out of the sand.
There are, of course, numerous things we didn’t see in the 20-minute preview. Martian princess Dejah Thoris (a tanned Lynn Collins) is seen only briefly, and we weren’t introduced to John Carter’s main villain, Matai Shang (Mark Strong).
What we did see, however, was an assemblage of footage that pointed to a genuinely promising big-screen fantasy. Taylor Kitsch makes for a far deeper and more interesting hero than we had initially suspected, and Stanton appears to have shot and edited John Carter in a way that is anything but generic, landfill Hollywood.
Within the space of 20 minutes, what was once a cinematic enigma transformed itself into one of the most promising movies of next year.Look out for our coverage of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter Q&A on Wednesday, while the full trailer for John Carter will arrive on Thursday.