John Carter ***
Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker. Sci-Fi/Fanyasy, USA, 132 min, cert 12A.
Released in UK cinemas 9th March 2012 by Walt Disney
If you are finding yourself asking "John who", do not fear – you are one of the many filmgoers who are unfamiliar with the long running sci-fi character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. After seeing the trailer for this film you would have been forgiven for thinking that this looked like a Star Wars, Avatar, Superman rip off, but you'd be wrong. In fact the tables are turned.
Burroughs' John Carter stories have served as inspiration for some of the most popular sci-fi and fantasy films of the past century. It has simply taken an extremely long time for the film to get produced. After countless attempts, Pixar's Stanton, the creative force behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E, has been given the chance to bring the original hero to the screen. So with a talented ensemble cast and a director working in live action for the first time, can John Carter impress the audiences of today?
John Carter is a former American Civil War captain (he fought for the South) on the run and after a mysterious encounter is bizarrely transported to Mars, known by it's inhabitants as Barsoom. As he explores the planet he learns that Barsoom is close to the end, with its species at war thanks to the manipulation of Matai Shang (Strong) He meets the Thark warriors, the princess of Helium, Deja Thoris (Collins) and the evil Sab Than (West) among others. John Carter does have some super-human abilities on Mars thanks to the lower gravity and has to decide which side to fight on.
Stanton has managed to bring his CGI knowledge from Pixar over to this project, creating an epic fantasy world on the scale of The Lord Of The Rings. There is lots to learn, plenty of names to remember and stunning sights to see ... but it all has a classic vibe to it. Each race has distinct characteristics, whether it be the ornate and decorative people of Helium or the savage world of the Tharks. It's an expansive universe that you're eager to spend more time in. There may be plenty of CGI used, but much of the film was shot in exotic and dry landscapes in Utah to give the feeling that you really are on Mars.
Kitsch does a decent job as the lead role. It's a character that many would find difficult to make engaging, but a lot of thought has been put into John. He has depth and intrigue, plus he seems weary of leaving one civil war on Earth and joining another on a different planet. When mixed with some humour and a dark side, it's a complex enough character to take us on this journey. The cast is also crammed full of Brits, with the ever-menacing Strong as a unique villain, West playing a power-hungry warrior king and Hinds seeming to bellow every line as the troubled leader of a city. Collins' princess was a muddled character who claims: "I will do anything to save my world, but I won't marry that guy!@ She was inconsistent at times, but certainly didn't feel like a damsel in distress. And finally, Dafoe is outstanding as Tars Tarkas, the leader of the alien warriors. Adopting well to the motion capture process, Dafoe performed admirably in a skintight outfit in the desert while on stilts – which is enough to have him accepted into the Andy Serkis class of mo-cap mastery. Not only does Tars Tarkas look impressive, but he is by far the strongest character in the movie.
However, John Carter is not all good. While the characters have depth and the action is engrossing, the storytelling and editing is a little unusual and messy in places. The film opens with an impressive sky battle on Mars, involving characters we don't know, in a place we aren't familiar with and we aren't even sure why they are fighting. Then we are transported back to Earth before returning to Mars, jumping between characters whose names we are still struggling to remember. It might have been better to simply stick with the path of John Carter rather than the stuttering opening to this film. Then we come to the mysterious Strong, who we are all eager to gain some insight into his plans and reasoning. It's a disappointing explanation for an intriguing villain and it goes hand-in-hand with the confusing endgame.
Thanks to the simple quest nature to the film, the stunning visuals, decent characters, humour in places and a strong heart to the project, John Carter is a film that's engaging from beginning to end with much crammed in for the audience to appreciate. It's a film that will please all adventure lovers who are likely to overlook the films faults.
Nick Wheatley. Review first published in FRIGHTFEST the online grene magazine -Read here
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