It’s taken the best part of eight decades, but finally, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrroughs’ A Princess Of Mars has arrived on the big screen. But given how much the source novel and its follow-ups have inspired other sci-fi fantasies over the years, from Star Wars to Avatar, how will director Andrew Stanton’s movie stand up?
From John Carter’s opening frame, it’s clear that Stanton’s brought all the passion he has for the source material to bear on this lavish adaptation. In a dizzying aerial battle, we’re introduced to a mythical version of Mars (here called Barsoom), a dying planet of warring factions and weird creatures, ornate aircraft with dragonfly wings, towering architecture and parched deserts.
Thanks to the manipulation of the mischievous, evil Matai Shang (Mark Strong) two cities of rival Red Martians, Zodanga and Helium, are locked in perpetual war. The king of Helium, Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) hopes that, by offering Sab Than (Dominic West) the hand of his daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), his city will be spared from destruction from the devastating weapon that Shang has created.
If the brief bit of plot blurted out above sounds confusing, imagine how confusing it must be to John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). At the start of the film, he’s a war-weary, bearded confederate soldier who, for reasons I won’t relate here, finds himself transported to the planet Barsoom and into the middle of yet another civil war.
Initially encountering the Tharks, an aggressive, four-armed warrior tribe, Carter soon meets Dejah Thoris, fleeing from the prospect of an arranged marriage, and ends up fighting for the survival of Helium City as the forces of Matai Shang and Sab Than gather.
Complex though John Carter’s backstory is, with its numerous factions and difficult-to-remember names, the strength of the film’s lead characters is such that the precise details of the plot seldom matter too much. Kitsch makes for a perfect square-jawed matinee hero, and he’s supported by some engagingly-wrought supporting characters. There’s Tars Tarkas (played by Willem Dafoe, unrecognisable under a layer of motion-captured pixels) a stern yet faithful Thark warrior who soon becomes Carter’s close companion, and Woola, a six-legged dog who’s the sweetest fantasy creature I’ve seen in years. Lynn Collins is good value, too, as Dejah Thoris, and her commanding screen presence and sword-swinging abilities mean she’s seldom just a helpless love-interest.
Under the watchful eye of Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), John Carter is epic in scale, lavish in its detail, and surprisingly funny – Stanton displays a certain reverence to his source material, but remembers to have fun with it. There’s an innocent charm to John Carter that recalls old serials like Flash Gordon, or Ray Harryhausen’s Greek mythological epics like Jason And The Argonauts. This is an aspect frequently missing in modern cinema, where even traditional heroes have to possess some dark, brooding motivation for their actions.
John Carter uses cutting edge CG to make an unashamedly old-fashioned movie – it’s a fantasy in the mould of a Hollywood historical epic rather than broad sci-fi like Avatar, and it brings to the screen some of the most ornate costumes and baroque, bejewelled flying ships you’re likely to encounter in a cinema this year. There are wide rumours floating around La-La Land that John Carter could have cost as much as $300million to bring to the screen. If this is the case, at least it’s easy to spot where all the cash went – Barsoom is a rich, vividly-drawn world that is far more engaging than the rather desolate snippets is footage in trailers might suggest. It really does have to be seen in a cinema to be truly appreciated.
John Carter isn’t a perfect film, admittedly. Its 3D is unobtrusive rather than dazzling. The story overall meanders a little (a fault you could pick with the source novel), and some might find the opening sequence, which essentially starts in the middle of a battle between people you don’t yet know anything about, rather bewildering. Meanwhile, Dominic West is saddled with a bit of a flimsy role as the power-hungry Sab Than, and his character gets rather lost among all the grand spectacle. Mark Strong is much better – his charisma helps – but his motivations are often somewhat muddled.
What John Carter does have in its favour, however, is charm, and lots of it. Its fight scenes are well shot and at times extraordinary. Its effects are handsome and seamlessly integrated – the thought that the Tharks were mere digital creations didn’t even cross my mind until the final credits rolled, which is an achievement itself – and Andrew Stanton’s creativity, humour and expertise are apparent from beginning to end.
This is best summed up, I think, in a sequence where Carter has just arrived on Barsoom. Unaware of where he is, he makes repeated attempts to get up, only for the planet’s weird gravity to make him stagger about and fall flat on his face. Gradually, though, Carter learns not only to walk in this new environment, but also to bound huge distances in a simple leap. In one scene, Stanton leads the character – and the audience – from bewilderment to exhilaration.
Like Burrough’s source novel, John Carter is, for all its warring factions and odd-sounding names, a simple, exhilarating adventure about faith and loyalty. It’s also an excuse for some rollicking, rip-roaring action sequences and extraordinary special effects – and in this regard, John Carter succeeds admirably.