Monday, 10 March 2014

Film Review #62

John Carter (2012)
Director: Andrew Stanton Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Willem Dafoe, Daryl Sabara

Certificate: 12 Running Time: 132 Minutes

Tagline: "Lost In Our World, Found In Another"

So, John Carter huh? Prior to this movie's release who had heard of him? I sure hadn't and, although I may be in the minority in that regard, it meant I had absolutely no idea what kind of film this is. Therefore, for the benefit of those as ignorant as I apparently am, allow me to explain. Mr. Carter is the star of the 'Barsoom' series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first of which - A Princess of Mars - was published all the way back in 1917 and upon which this film is based. They are primarily set on 'Barsoom' which is the name given to Mars by the native populace. That's right, for the book was written in a time when it was believed that not only might Mars harbour life but whole civilisations, perhaps even more advanced than our own! Barsoom may well have once been home to such glorious societies but during the time of the story it's a ruined and dying planet.

Enduring these mighty challenging times are three civilisations - two groups of human-like Red Martians, one of which occupies the city of Helium while the other resides on the huge mobile scavenger city of Zodanga, who have been at war with each other for a thousand years, and various tribes of Green Martians who are four-armed, 15 feet tall tusked warriors, and who don't like the occupants of either city. But what's all this got to do with the human known as John Carter? Well, Mr. Carter (Kitsch) is a former American Civil War Confederate Army captain from Virginia and the film (and presumably book) begins soon after his apparent and hitherto unexplained death. At the funeral his nephew (Sabara) is given his journal which he begins to read in an attempt to find clues to what could've caused his death.

Carter spent his final years moping around the place after the death of his family but also looking for a 'cave of gold' he was obsessed with finding which he finally does find whilst running from a band of Apaches. Interrupting his joy at this discovery, however, is a lone Thern who are a mysterious race of White Martians. After a brief fight, Carter defeats the Thern but also accidentally activates the medallion device he was holding which transports him to what quickly turns out to be another world - Barsoom! Soon after his arrival on this strange world he's captured by the Tharks, a tribe of Green Martians. Meanwhile, Sab Than (West), leader of the Zodangans, has a plan to end the ancient war with Helium - he will marry Princess Dejah Thoris (Collins), daughter of Helium leader, Tardos Mors (Hinds), who approves of the plan. Dejah, however, does not approve and flees on a flappy Helium ship.

Than is quickly in pursuit on his ship and they soon find themselves approaching the Thark stronghold. Carter is able (and apparently willing) to intervene thanks to the increased strength and astounding jumping ability he now possesses due to his differing bone density and the planet's lower gravity, and his remarkable new 'superpowers' impress all parties who are soon vying for his allegiance. All poor old Carter wants to do, though, is get back to Jasoom (the name they use for Earth). To 21st century audiences this must all seems impossibly far-fetched, what with our massively improved knowledge of Mars and indeed the Universe in general, but since I didn't know the history or any of the background to the character and therefore didn't really have any idea what to expect, none of it really came as too much of a surprise either!

One thing I did know about the film prior to watching it is that it cost a fortune to make (and market) and was a bomb, so I wasn't really expecting a particularly engrossing couple of hours whatever they might contain. First impressions weren't great either, mainly due to inaccuracies related to the Martian setting. For example, I'm quite sure that, even with only a little more than a third of Earth's level of gravity, Carter wouldn't be able to leap miles into the air or across the landscape. A bit further/higher, perhaps - more than enough to have some fun for sure - but that much? Preying even more on my mind while watching, however, was how un-Mars-like Barsoom seems. It's not even red! I assumed it was filmed in Arizona or Nevada or something (it was actually Utah) but no effort is really made to conceal this fact (although they did at least remember to include both of Mars' moons, albeit rather smoother versions). Despite all this though, the film quickly and unexpectedly grew on me.

Apart from that poor depiction of Mars the effects are superb. Much of the extensive marketing for the film featured the giant creatures such as the dinosaur things on the poster, the scary white gorillas above, and several other fine CG creations, and they are indeed all fantastic, as are the much more numerous Green Martians. My favourite of the lot, however, is the awesome dog/lizard/monster thing called Woola (to the right here) who becomes Carter's faithful pet! The cities of Helium and Zodanga are very impressive too - in far off shots as well as close-ups - with Zodanga looking especially robust as it clanks around on its huge scorpion-like legs. Even with all this computer trickery, though, this still seems like a much older film - the style is more akin to a film from the 70's or 80's for me. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily, it's actually kinda cool and the casting suits this style too.

Kitsch looks suitably dapper/heroic in his Earth/Barsoom guises and he adapts remarkably quickly to the latter, leaping about and smashing people/ships as though he's been doing it forever. Lynn Collins is just as captivating as Dejah who, despite being a princess, is more than capable of kicking some arse herself! Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Hayden Church also provide good voice support (and probably motion-capture) as Sola, Tars Tarkas, and Tal Hajus respectively, three Green Martians, and even Bryan Cranston makes an appearance as a Union Colonel back on Jarsoom. Bad guy duties are shared by Dominic West as the unjustly empowered Seb Than and Mark Strong as Matai Shang, the Thern leader trying to manipulate events from the shadows. Neither of them is particularly sinister but they keep the story ticking along well enough, and after a slightly shaky start it's one I enjoyed a lot.

Initially I thought I was in store for over two hours of boring nonsense filled with wooden characters with little of note besides flashy effects but John Carter's adventure is a strangely compelling one and it's difficult to say why it wasn't more of a success. It might be because of its name - if you've no prior knowledge of the books it reveals nothing about what kind of film it is. Would you really think a film called John Carter was an epic sci-fi/fantasy film? If they'd at least used his full title - John Carter of Mars - it would've made a bit more sense. Sadly it wasn't a success which means the sequels (this was supposed the first part of a trilogy) are unlikely, and that's a real shame. It doesn't fool me into thinking it's set on Mars for one second but if you just ignore that and imagine it's based on some faraway planet in another solar system or something, you may be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

RKS Score: 7/10



  1. Looks amazing. I've read the book but was also put off by the title. The original title is A Princess of Mars but apparently this was considered to girly. What if Star Wars had been called Luke Skywalker? It might have bombed too. I think it's not so important that it doesn't look realistic. This was always about a fictional, romantic version of Mars, stories of which have a long literary tradition. This Mars exists only in human imagination and tells us about ourselves, it was never realistic, but expresses a post-Columbian longing for new discovery. And in 1917 many thought Mars might be inhabited after all, based on the "canals" seen or imagined by Schiaparelli.

  2. Some good points there sir, especially about the name. I can really imagine Star Wars being a lot less successful if it was named as you suggest. Thanks for dropping by :)