‘Transplanted to Mars, a Civil War vet discovers a lush planet inhabited by 12-foot tall barbarians. Finding himself a prisoner of these creatures, he escapes, only to encounter a princess who is in desperate need of a savior.‘
Given the ridiculous number of Tarzan adaptations to grace the big screen over the last century, it’s amazing that there hasn’t been a big screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other epic series until now (apparently there was a direct to DVD movie in 2009). There have been many attempts over the years to bring this project to life by various studios, but the story always remained the same: ‘the technology isn’t advanced enough to do it justice.’ It’s curious that an animated version never made it off the ground, but now we have the next best thing, a CGI filled blockbuster directed by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton.
John Carter hearkens back to a time when Mars was a complete mystery; free to be populated with whatever a writers imagination could come up with. The movie does a great job of tapping into the sense of adventure present in the original stories; despite its many problems, this is a fun film from start to finish and isn’t ashamed to admit that it’s nothing more than a flight of fancy. This is a nice break from the continual flow of mediocre action/adventure films that take themselves far too seriously. While the story takes place on Mars, this is clearly a fantasy movie, not sci-fi – and the film embraces the genre wholeheartedly.
John Carter is so full of exciting battles, troubled kings, damsels in distress and noble acts that it is easy to miss the fact that there isn’t really much of a coherent plot tying the whole thing together. After a brief introduction on Earth (that does a nice job of incorporating Edgar Rice Burroughs in a similar fashion to the books) the audience is dumped on Mars with the titular character as he bounces from one crazy civilisation to the next, never really stopping to ask the many questions that would surely be running through the head of anyone in his situation.
In true pulp fashion, the audience is just expected to go with it, asking questions would waste too much time. For the most part, it is easy to just ignore the various gaps and go with the story; but there are a number of moments that make you sit up and ask: ‘Wait, does any of this actually make sense?‘ While the plot does start to look very haphazard when submitted to any scrutiny, the film does exactly what it sets out to do; create a fun, engaging adventure story.
A large part of this is down to the great performances from most of the cast. Mark Strong is suitably menacing as the villain he seems destined to always play, Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy do a nice transition of their parts from Rome into an alien setting, and Dominic West has a great time chewing the scenery as the ambitious Sab Than; but the real prize here goes to Lynn Collins as Princess Dejah Thoris.
While they were usually abducted as part of the plot, Burroughs was known for filling his John Carter books with strong, independent female characters and the film has managed to continue that tradition. Collins does a great job of capturing both the vulnerability and boldness of the Princess, easily being one of the most interesting characters in the film. I’d have to nominate my favourite character as the adorable CGI Mars-dog Woola, but the Princess is a close second.
Unfortunately, one of the least interesting characters in the film is John Carter himself. Despite a great introduction that shows how much the character hates being tied down, he never really becomes much more than a stock standard hero archetype. There are some attempts to give him a tragic back story, but they come off as clumsy and unnecessary. You know that there’s a problem when your main character is outshone by the CGI supporting cast (even if it does include Willem Dafoe).
Overall, John Carter is a fun action romp that has its share of problems, but is still definitely worth watching. It’s refreshing to see such a light-hearted adventure for a change, and despite having a thin story and more CGI than you could poke a stick at, it was an entertaining film – and that’s what your after when you go to the movies isn’t it?
What I Liked – Captured the sense of adventure. Great visuals. Lynn Collins’ performance. Woola.
What I Didn’t Like – Plot felt rushed and unfocused. John Carter wasn’t very interesting.
Rating – 3.5 out of 5 (Enjoyable)