“The Inakians are invading Branakha to take the iridianonan back to Nu’cha! Quickly, to the light ship!” This is not a direct quote from Disney’s John Carter – for a start I’ve made up all my own silly fantasy words – but I think it represents faithfully what much of the dialogue sounds like. For long spells of Wall-E director Andrew Stanton’s debut live action film this jargon combines with some elaborate fancy dress costumes to create a world that’s difficult to invest in emotionally, even if it always looks very nice. This isn’t such a problem when we’re watching pretty Earthman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) beat the hell from a gigantic, albino space ape – but it becomes more incongruous when we get bogged down in the rote love story and earnest father-daughter drama.
Adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ near century old pulp novel A Princess of Mars, Stanton deserves credit for coming at the text with disarming sincerity and obvious love, telling this schlocky sci-fi story without cynicism or a protective barrier of irony. This is perhaps as strong a representation of Burroughs’ story as you could see committed to film, with scantily clad warrior heroes leaping between exotic airships, dispatching blue-blooded beasts with glimmering swords. Yet with inter-character relationships not the book’s (or, as it turns out, the film’s) strongest suit, adapting this text at all seems redundant given that all the best bits have already long since been appropriated by other Hollywood movies.
Since the very first trailers critics have been quick to note superficial similarities to Avatar (white man assimilated by alien tribe), with large dollops of Star Wars (such as the arena scene from Episode II), and even echoes of last year’s dreary Cowboys and Aliens (wandering outlaw Carter wakes up in a dessert with new powers and haunted by backflashes to the wife he could not protect). No doubt these elements stem from the highly influential original novel and have been used here in good faith, yet it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that much of this has been done before. There are a few eye-popping sequences, such as when Carter is chased by a vicious horde of beasties, but these are separated by long and cumbersome dramatic scenes in a film that’s on the wrong side of the two hour mark.
For those not in the know, John Carter is the story of Taylor “he’s so hot right now” Kitsch’s titular hero: a Confederate soldier in 19th century Virginia, transported to Mars (known to the locals as Barsoom) after touching a mysterious, glowing amulet. Once on the red planet he discovers not only that the difference in gravity has increased his strength and agility (meaning he is now potentially a pretty awesome superhero), but that he is not alone. In fact Barsoom is populated by several warring tribes and species. The technologically advanced humanoid Red Men of Zodanga (who live in a cool moving city) and Helium are embroiled in a cataclysmic conflict which threatens to destroy all life on the planet, whilst neither group gets on at all well with the Tharks – one of many primitive tribes of tall, four-limbed Green Martians. Pulling all the strings are a strange group of shape-shifting, teleporting, all-powerful beings called the Holy Therns – glowing blue space monks lead by bad guy du jour Mark Strong.
The film is ultimately about Carter’s Han Solo-esque journey from self-interested nihilist to righteous interplanetary hero, as he goes from seeking a way back to Earth (and his cave o’ gold) to understanding that he can use his new abilities to help save Barsoom and all who dwell there. Like Spider-Man, Carter learns the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility”. After becoming the unlikely (and reluctant) champion of the Tharks, Carter becomes locked into the battle between the Red Men, bumping into Princess Dejah of Helium (Lynn Collins) and falling for her capable, sassy Princess Leia-esque charms. Dejah is being forced to wed the villainous leader of the Zodangans (Dominic West) by her peace-seeking father (Ciarán Hinds) and this just won’t do. So she looks to persuade Carter to help save her father’s kingdom.
The film is at its most fun when Carter is in the company of the Tharks, who are generally pretty terrific. As a rule, the more Tharks on the screen the better the sequence, with the human characters quite boring by comparison – with charismatic actors like James Purefoy underused. The motion capture of the alien characters is brilliant, getting a lot out of performances from Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church without venturing anywhere close to the uncanny valley. The Thark characters are somehow at once stylised and realistic, fitting in with the human characters perfectly and with a very subtle range of expressions. The use of CG is overall pretty stunning and seamless, though Stanton perhaps could have done without the cutesy animal companion character – a staple of animated films that works less well in live action.
I don’t intend this as faint praise at all, but I think John Carter will work really well for the young boys who no doubt form its intended audience. Carter is a character of pure, childish wish-fulfillment: he cuts down armies of alien warriors with seeming ease, jumps through the air in a way which almost certainly inspired the original (non-flying) incarnation of Superman, and he wins the love of a smoking hot space princess. The film is soaked in kid-friendly blue gore, with Carter at one point emerging victorious from a creatures entrails. In another scene he is shown standing in the middle of a pile of his fallen foes. I know I would have appreciated this high body count (in a Disney movie, no less) when I was 12, even if, as an adult, I find this unrepentant violence more problematic.
Unlike most post-war heroes, Carter never shies away from a fight. There is never the slightest pretense that he’d rather not have to kill his enemies – that he has been forced into violence. If you come at him with a sword he will cut your head off and not feel the least bit bad about it. He belongs in a category of hero with Conan the Barbarian or Burroughs’ own Tarzan: muscular, animalistic men. At times it seems, far from being the peacemaker, Carter is just another part of the problem – another weapon ready to be used by whichever side has the most attractive available female. When he does reach his moment of supposed character growth, it reads more as recognition that he has a pretty sweet deal away from Earth than of a newly awakened altruistic spirit.
I feel genuinely bad in not being overly enthusiastic about John Carter. On a personal level, it’s one of the films I’ve been most looking forward to for a long time and I’m a big fan of Andrew Stanton – as a director and, for what it’s worth, as a bloke. But even apart from that, it’s not desirable to knock a film with as much love and imagination plainly invested in it as this. As with Tron: Legacy, from a design perspective the film is faultless and a thing of beauty. Yet like that earlier Disney movie, the human factor is sadly wanting despite the best efforts of all involved. Though I would add that those lucky few who live near an IMAX would be strongly advised to check it out, with the movie painted on a large canvass that recalls Lawrence of Arabia or a John Ford western as much as anything. I also suspect fans of the books – already invested in the film’s peculiar lore – will find much to love.
John Carter is released in the UK and US from March 9th.